From Troubled Waters To A Career In Construction

By Mark McLaughlin | September 28, 2010

It's amazing how far a big dream and passionate dedication can take you.

Seven years ago, Ernesto Oliva escaped Cuba and came to this country in a speedboat filled with refugees. He was determined to start a new life in America, and now he is using that same determination to win major awards in his chosen career.

Ernesto recently completed his apprenticeship at Miami's Air Conditioning Technical Center, more commonly known as AC Tech ( He also recently won the third in a series of four apprenticeship contests and then competed at the national level.

“My biggest challenge has been to keep studying to make sure I will win,” Ernesto said. “When I get home from a long day of work, I may want to go to sleep, but I will study instead.”

A Narrow Escape

Ernesto is no stranger to working hard to achieve a goal. He was 28 years old when he decided to escape the government suppression of his native Cuba. He bought and resold rum to raise the $8,000 he needed to buy a ticket to freedom: the last opening left on a 32-passenger speedboat.

En route, their vessel was approached by a boat filled with armed Cuban soldiers – but fortunately for Ernesto and the other passengers, the soldiers turned and left without firing a shot.

Seven hours later, Ernesto and his companions arrived in America.

“I sacrificed many things, leaving my mom, sister and beloved grandfather, but for a great cause, the most beautiful of all – to be free and useful to society,” he said.

Launching A Career In Contracting

Ernesto studied hard and became a citizen of the United States. He began taking classes at a local vocational school, where a teacher told him about Local Union 725's technical training center in Miami – AC Tech.

Now that Ernesto has found the career he loves, he is determined to be the best of the best. He will graduate to journeyman status on September 1.

According to Art Warren, director of AC Tech, “If everyone had the same dedication, desire and drive as Ernesto, our industry problems would be solved.”

AC Tech trains workers for the mechanical contracting industry, providing graduates with expertise in heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR), as well as piping.

Moving Up The Competition Ladder

The apprenticeship competitions are held by the United Association (UA) of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada. AC Tech competed in the state-level competition from 1955 until 1974, when it was discontinued. After 1974, however, AC Tech continued to hold yearly competitions among its apprentices.

Last year the state competition started up again. Ernesto entered, having already won a local competition, and he won at the state level as well.

After winning the state contest, Ernesto went on to win the UA regional apprenticeship competition in which 13 states were represented. There were five categories in this competition – Pipefitting, Welding, Plumbing, HVACR, and Sprinkler Fitting.

The competition consisted of a written test and 12 hands-on projects. These projects allowed the contestants to demonstrate their problem-solving skills.

“They tested me on what to do out in the field, for both residential and commercial projects,” Ernesto said.

The contestants were evaluated by 12 judges. Art Warren was the regional competition's HVACR chairman, and he also served as a judge, along with Mack MacKinnon, training coordinator at AC Tech. Contestants were identified by numbers rather than names to ensure anonymity.

Then, in August, Ernesto went on compete in the final, national-level round of United Association apprentice competitions in Michigan. About 2,500 plumbing and pipe fitting professionals were there – and when the scores were in, Ernesto had placed third overall.

His Greatest Supporters

His greatest supporters are his family members in Cuba.

“My mom is waiting for me to win the next one,” Ernesto said. “My sister is sure I can do it.”

Ernesto misses his family, but he works hard so he can send money to them in Cuba on a regular basis.

Although his apprenticeship at AC Tech is over, Ernesto will not be taking any time off now that he is out of school. He will keep on working and studying. He is employed by DebonAir Mechanical Air Conditioning in Hialeah, FL.

“DebonAir is very proud of Ernie,” said Charlie Aleshire, owner/vice president at DebonAir. “He is an essential part of the DebonAir team. His attitude and work ethic are unparalleled.”

One reason why Ernesto keeps winning the competitions is because he is always practicing his skills.

“In all five years of my apprenticeship, I have never run out of work,” he said. “I've been working since the first day.”

Author Information
Mark McLaughlin regularly writes about green building, workforce training and other construction-related topics.