A blue-collar way

Many young people look to college, but there are other roads to a successful career. 

Ryan Fahey, right, with his apprentice Tom Stanek at a job site on Hatch Road in Vineyard Haven. Fahey said when he finds more time, the truck's label will say "Martha's Vineyard Heating and Refrigeration." — Eunki Seonwoo

On 67 Hatch Road in Vineyard Haven, Ryan Fahey, owner of Martha’s Vineyard Heating and Refrigeration, and his apprentice Tom Stanek were up early, and ready to fix the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system at their client’s house.

Fahey, 30, has been in the HVAC technician trade since he was 18. Two weeks after graduating from Falmouth High School, he joined Pipefitters Local 537, a labor union in Boston, to become an HVAC apprentice. Fahey knew going to college was not for him, but he was not sure what path to take. Fahey said that he suffered from attention-deficit disorder, which was reflected in his grades. All he has ever heard was that going to college was the only real road to success while growing up. Although Fahey questioned this notion, he was unsure of what to do. Fahey’s father, a retired welder who was with Local 537 for more than 40 years, invited him to join the union and learn a trade. 

“I chose to do the service industry side of it instead of being a welder. I figured if I was good at my trade, and was honest to my clients, and could fix my machinery, I would always have a job, which was very important to me,” Fahey said about deciding to learn how to be an HVAC technician. “I just loved my job. I thoroughly love this trade.”

A part of this decision came from observing his father’s career as a welder. Fahey saw his father get laid off when there was nothing to weld, which led to financial instability for the family. Fahey’s father would travel far away for work. “There were years when I would go without seeing my dad, because in 1991 there really wasn’t much work for a union welder,” Fahey said. 

Fahey said that his schooling, for the most part, was free. He paid for books, ranging between $55 and $85, and monthly $25 union fees. Fahey also said a lot of the education came from hands-on training, many times fixing up the HVAC system for schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Additionally, Fahey earned an income while learning. As a first-year apprentice in 2009, he was earning $18.63 an hour. When he graduated from the union’s education program five years later, Fahey was earning $56 an hour. This allowed him to have relatively little debt compared with his college graduate friends, some of whom have student loan debts as high as $100,000. 

Fahey worked with the contractors U.S. Air Conditioning and Associated Mechanical before he ended up at Martha’s Vineyard eight years after graduating from Local 537’s program. Fahey worked around nine months at the initial position, but then joined William-Mueller Plumbing and Heating in its HVAC division for two years. Eventually, Fahey received encouragement from clients he worked with during this time to start his own business. “I made the decision to make the leap … that’s because my clients saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time, and through their guidance and their advice … they pretty much gave me an opportunity that I thought I’d never have,” Fahey said. He currently serves around 400 clients. “My bosses are my clients, who I care about more than anything else in the world, and they know that.” 

Fahey built his name through word of mouth, being ready to work at the drop of a hat, and providing fair prices for his work. Fahey even did some of the jobs for free during his business’s infancy in exchange for clients spreading the word about him in Falmouth and on Martha’s Vineyard. Fahey plans to create Cape Cod and Nantucket divisions in the future, which would require more vans and workers. 

However, Fahey said both the Islands and the Cape are facing a shortage of tradespeople. He said many of the passengers on the morning ferries are tradespeople coming in to fill that gap. Fahey said this shortage will be exacerbated when more tradespeople from the baby boomer generation retire. 

“The main problem I’m having today is finding skilled [HVAC] tradesmen to help me. I can’t be in 17 different locations at once, and I’m very picky on who goes into my [clients’] houses and how my [clients’] houses are run,” Fahey said. “It would be nice to have more younger kids go into the trades out of high school, to be able to fill that gap for an Island.”

One place on the Island that offers different types of certifications and licenses is ACE MV, though it focuses more on young people who are out of high school. Holly Bellebuono, executive director of ACE MV, said her organization is working closely with other educational institutions to make certifications and licenses more accessible to young people of Martha’s Vineyard, such as offering an offshore wind technician certificate from Bristol Community College on-Island. ACE MV also offers courses to help young adults to learn financial literacy, and soft skills, like how to act during an interview. “We’re not a community college or a technical school, but we’re the closest thing Martha’s Vineyard has got to that,” Bellebuono said. 

Bellebuono said there is a lot of interest in some of the certification courses, such as for certified nursing assistants and electrician certification. However, ACE MV currently has a limit to what they can offer. “Our biggest problem is getting instructors. We need people to teach these classes. We had so many people who wanted to enroll in nursing classes and electrician classes, but we can’t find teachers. We need local Vineyarders to step up and commit to teaching these courses,” Bellebuono said. “A part of the way our Island can help young people is for the adults, the experts in these fields, to become teachers and help the next generation.”

If a young person wanted assistance in advancing their career and was ambitious, Fahey said, he’d be willing to help them. Fahey said he is where he is today because older tradespeople saw potential in him and took him under their wing. 

“I truly believe you keep what you have by giving it away. If I was to never teach Tom, who would I be? I’d be no one. I’d be miserable if I didn’t have someone to spend the day with and teach and feel good about myself,” Fahey said. 

For those looking to join a trade, Fahey listed some characteristics that will help the process: ambition, loyalty, honesty, and being teachable. He suggested to young Islanders willing to learn to try approaching one of the larger companies, such as BEST Electricians Inc., to see if they would give a chance. 

“You do have to bite the bullet for a little while, and you do need a boss, but you don’t always need a boss. One day you can be your own boss, and that’s what I believe America was built on,” Fahey said.


  1. For the last few decades we have done a poor job on exposing young people to the trades. They are told the only way to success is through a college degree which are increasingly becoming worthless. A good first step would be to educate our young people on the financial burden associated with students loans which will hurt their independence for decades. Employers are looking for employees with skills gained in trade schools or the military, not a piece of paper

    • Once again, the zero sum argument rears its ugly head. That “piece if paper” you find so worthless equals entry into fields that a high school diploma or a trade school certificate never will. It also equals higher earning potential. But economics aside, a college education exposes students to a broader understanding of the world outside of their own experience. You can advance the absolute need for skilled tradespeople without undercutting the college experience. If you can see beyond your own nose, that is.

      • “Equals higher earning potential” You obviously have absolutely no idea what I skilled plumber, carpenter or electrician can make per year. And I mean on the mainland, not here where the cost of living inflates wages.

      • If you go to college and pay 140k in four years and take Hindu Studies you will not get a job and furthermore most colleges today are indoctrinating with social justice and BLM and CRT and all manner of foolishness. Become an Electrician or a Plumber and make a good living and use your common sense which you will lose if you go to University, with some exceptions.

  2. Congratulations to Ryan Fahey for all his hard work, as well as to those who guided him along the way. College is an excellent choice for some, but not all, high school graduates. Mr. Fahey seems content with his work, and just as important, his clients are pleased with it. Tradespeople are vital for every community.

  3. College is not for everyone. Even with a College degree you must look for a job, be hired, and learn company needs. Still no guarantee for success. Lots of years studying for knowledge is great for the ego. But someone has to pay the bills and living expenses in the meantime. Trades are for the people that want to work and be good at what they do. Wearing A shirt and tie is not always a high paying job. People find this out, sooner or later in life. Like what you do, do your best work and people will seek you out.

Comments are closed.