Nathan Price had been taking classes for two years in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning program at Kennedy-King College on Chicago’s South Side when he got a job at a local construction company last summer.
He studied HVAC because he liked working with his hands and got a thrill when he flipped a switch and a broken machine worked again. But he also chose it because it’s a growing industry that needs employees and pays well, especially for people angling to make it into the middle class.
But when he started working, he noticed his boss asked him to do something different than what he’d been taught.
“We weren't using that stuff I learned in that class out in the real world,” Price said. “Guys I worked with had to show me things, which is normal for an entry-level job, but you're supposed to have that foundation.”
Price was disappointed his class didn’t prepare him, but he wasn’t entirely surprised. For more than a year, he and other students had tried to get department leadership at the City Colleges of Chicago two-year school to make the program better.
Interviews with students and staff, and emails obtained by WBEZ, show HVAC department and college leaders have been slow to address concerns despite repeated complaints lodged through the City Colleges feedback portal, emails and in meetings with school leaders by multiple students in the HVAC program.
“There’s a lot of great instructors here, but there’s also some opportunities for growth,” Price said. “We just want to work with the school to see things get better.”
Toward the end of the spring semester, City Colleges leadership acknowledged there’s room to improve and called for changes. But Price, other students, and some staff say they’ve been ringing the alarm bell for at least a year and a half and haven't seen much change.
“The quality education platform I thought they were going to offer me has so many holes in it,” said Price, who graduated this month. There are “teachers that aren’t concerned about being prepared for their class, a lack of structure and following the syllabus, so our expectations aren’t met.”
On top of that, Price said there aren’t many partnerships with local companies that could help students from the Englewood-based school get internships or jobs after graduation. He and other students say the department also struggles to educate students who enter without the basic math skills needed to succeed.
Price shared some of these concerns with Eddie Phillips, then the dean of instruction, a year and a half ago via email. He also spoke at multiple City Colleges of Chicago board of trustees meetings, raising concerns about what an inadequate program means for its mostly minority student population trying to boost their lot in life.
“There's a lot of minority students that are trying to get a second chance at community college at Kennedy-King, and they feel like they're being left behind,” Price told the board at its December meeting. “I would ask that you just take a look at it. We want to improve, we want to be able to get into the middle class.”
College to careers
City Colleges often touts the opportunities it provides its students, most of whom are low-income students of color. It prides itself on being a place where students can lift themselves out of poverty by getting an education and connecting them with good paying jobs in fields like construction, health care and transportation logistics.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and City Colleges leaders often point to higher graduation rates and transfer rates as proof that the changes they’ve implemented over the last decade are working across the seven schools. One of those initiatives is called College to Careers, where local industry partners are tasked with helping schools better align curriculum for real-world scenarios, connect students with internships and give them a first pass at jobs.
HVAC is under the College to Careers umbrella.
But in this department, it’s not working as advertised.
“It has not lived up to my expectations,” said a current student who asked not to be identified because he’s still in the program. This student already has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and is taking the classes with the hope of opening his own business.
“It's not putting out, in my opinion, students that are ready when they leave here to really be field technicians, which is the purpose for most of the students coming here,” he said.
Meanwhile, the program’s enrollment has dropped by nearly half since 2015. Completion numbers have dropped by 82% in that same time. Last year, only 15 students received a certificate or degree in the HVAC program, according to the Illinois Community College Board. Kennedy-King’s overall population has dropped by a third in the past four years.
The department’s budget was $287,000 for this year. Since 2015, they’ve spent $233,000 in federal grants on a variety of equipment and supplies.
In the lab, student say brand-new equipment sits unused and equipment remains broken for long periods of time. They lament that there’s not enough hands-on training in the lab, which they say is key to learning the trade. Staff say they don’t have basic tools to work on equipment and end up buying materials themselves.
In one room sits a large commercial air-conditioning system. It was donated by the company Johnson Controls, but it's only used by an advanced elective class that isn’t taught every semester, according to students and staff.
“The Johnson Controls [lab], that’s a joke to me. “I’ve never seen it run … we never really used that,” said Dones Mayhay, who has taught air-conditioning and refrigeration courses in the HVAC program for 10 years. Multiple students said he’s the strongest teacher in the department, along with the lab technician who helps out with the lab portion for nearly every class.
“We owe our students”
Eddie Phillips is now a vice president at Kennedy-King College. He told WBEZ school leaders welcome student feedback and know there are areas where they can improve.
And in a statement sent after WBEZ spoke with Phillips, City Colleges spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes said “Chancellor Salgado has called for the HVAC program to address student concerns immediately, including adding more lab time and employer engagement.”
Phillips said he's focused on improving ways to connect students to jobs and employers.
“Just kind of based on student feedback, we understand this is a real big concern and obligation we owe our students to make sure they are getting those connections to [the] industry,” Phillips said.
When Kennedy-King reviewed its HVAC curriculum a few years ago, it partnered with a national nonprofit called the National Center for Construction Education and Research. No local industry partners were brought in, according to Phillips.
Still, Phillips defended the program and its leadership.
“It's a great program,” he said. “Getting feedback that we’ve received from students has really helped us think, from a student lens, how we can make the programs and outcomes more meaningful for them. We’re standing by our commitment to continue that work … to bridge those partnerships.”
But all of the success Phillips and City Colleges cite is anecdotal. The department does not keep data on how many graduates are employed in the field. Phillips said it’s hard to measure — another thing they’re trying to fix.
Phillips said it takes time to build relationships with the industry.
“We’re starting to identify who these organizations are,” he said. “They’re starting to raise their hands and show up at our college, which is exciting.”
But federal data suggests companies should be beating at Kennedy-King’s door. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 13% increase in jobs in Illinois between 2016 and 2026.
And these are just the kind of jobs Kennedy-King students are hoping to land. HVAC technicians start around $35,000, but can work their way up to six-figure incomes in just a few years.
A suburban success story
Local HVAC managers say they’re desperate to find well-trained employees.
“In this industry, you can’t get the talent,” said Dave Koehler, who recruits for the company Automatic Building Controls, which is based in northwest suburban Rolling Meadows. “The only way you get it is to get on LinkedIn and try and poach someone from someone else's team.”
For employees new to the field, Koehler relies on Harper College, a community college in Palatine.
Harper has a robust HVAC program with four spacious labs and multiple classrooms with state-of-the art equipment, much of it donated by industry partners over the past four years, like Automatic Building Controls and another major HVAC company, Daikin Applied.
The school also serves a different population than Kennedy-King. Harper is 50% white with about 40% of degree-seeking students receiving federal financial aid. Kennedy-King is 80% black with 76% receiving federal financial aid.
Koehler’s company connected with Harper to build a talent pipeline for his company.
“I recruit at certain schools,” Koehler said. “Harper happens to have a very engaged leadership program here … We can see the curriculum, we can advise on what they have, so we know what the marketplace wants.”
Jose Vital, who runs the program, said outside partners hold them accountable.
“It's important for us to have those partnerships because they want to make sure that the students that are graduating have that foundation because ultimately if they don’t have that foundation, they are not going to succeed,” Vital said.
Kennedy-King College leadership touts its partnership with the company Johnson Controls. They host job fairs once or twice a semester, and earlier this month, they came in to interview students for potential jobs. But Phillips doesn’t know how many graduates have been hired there over the years either. Johnson Controls would not confirm how many employees they’ve hired from Kennedy-King. They characterize the partnership with the school as “informal.”
Despite the student concerns and a lack of data showing student success after graduation, Phillips said the school hears anecdotally from graduates that they are doing well.
“We have students coming back and telling us that they’re doing great work in the field,” he said, noting that some students also transfer to four-year schools like the Illinois Institute of Technology and Ferris State University, which have advanced degrees in the field.
IIT said they haven’t had any transfer students from Kennedy-King in the past five years. Ferris State said they’ve had five transfers from Kennedy-King during that same time.
Struggling to understand
There’s another problem Kennedy-King grapples with as an open-enrollment institution that students, professors and department heads all acknowledge: Many students arrive underprepared for college-level material and struggle to comprehend concepts.
Students said the school struggles to educate those students alongside the rest of the class.
Professors “slow the class down to the slowest student,” said the student who did not wish to be identified. “So a lot of us are just sitting there twiddling our thumbs for half the course or better because we know what they're talking about, we got it the first time or we already knew that because it's something we should know when you enroll in the class.”
Mayhay said he often tests students on basic skills at the beginning of the semester in his Intro Air Conditioning class. He said many students can’t complete a majority of the questions.
“I really want my students to learn the most they can get from me, and I really put a lot of my time and passion here and I really design my curriculum so that everyone can understand,” he said. “But despite that, most of them are not understanding it.”
Kennedy-King’s Phillips said the school provides extra support to students such as peer tutoring.
Yet multiple sources allege professors are sometimes pressured by the department chair to pass students even if they don’t understand the material.
Price, who was a peer tutor, said two professors would come to him and say, “‘Hey, I can’t flunk this person, can you help them?’” A professor confirmed this. Other students said it was known you could pass some classes just by showing up.
In a statement, City Colleges spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes said, “City Colleges trusts its faculty to grade students with integrity, and has no tolerance for any deviation from its standards.” The school did not make the department chair available for an interview, despite multiple requests.
For Price, all of these issues seem connected.
“You don't have any partnerships maybe because [businesses] don’t feel there’s quality coming out of here,” he said. “That's connected to leadership that doesn’t follow up with students, doesn’t appreciate feedback from students, doesn't even make [an] above average attempt to fix equipment which is most important hands-on in this field.”
Earlier this month, City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado met with students and staff to hear concerns. Not everyone who attended had issues with the program, according to students at the meeting. But some students who said they’re satisfied acknowledge they’ve never attended another program to compare to this one. Still, leadership said change is coming, including partnerships with two unions.
In a new statement released after WBEZ spoke to Vice President Phillips at Kennedy-King College, spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes added, “Chancellor Salgado has called for the HVAC program to address student concerns immediately, including adding more lab time and employer engagement. City Colleges trusts its faculty to grade students with integrity, and has no tolerance for any deviation from its standards.”
Price said he’s happy administrators are taking student concerns seriously. But he said he’s had these conversations before, and he’s skeptical things will change quickly, if at all.
Plus, he’s already graduated.
His next step: applying to a union to see if his schooling will actually pay off.