Cuban refugee wins HVAC industry awards

Miami - Seven years ago Ernesto Oliva escaped Cuba and came to the U.S. in a speedboat filled with refugees. He was determined to start a new life in America, and now he is using that same steadfast determination to win major awards in his chosen career. Oliva recently completed his apprenticeship at Miami's Air Conditioning Technical Center, commonly known as AC Tech. He also recently won the third

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

Oliva recently completed his apprenticeship at Miami's Air Conditioning Technical Center, commonly known as AC Tech. He also recently won the third in a series of four apprenticeship contests and is preparing to go on to national level. To win, he knows he must hit the books.

“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.”

Oliva is no stranger to working hard to achieve a goal. He was 28-years-old when he decided to escape the government repression 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 Cuban soldiers - but fortunately for Oliva 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.

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

Now that Oliva has found the career he loves, he is determined to be the best of the best. He graduated 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 HVACR as well as piping.

The apprenticeship competitions are held by the United Association 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. Oliva entered, having already won a local competition, and he won at the state level as well. During the 20 years of the state competition, AC Tech apprentices have won 16 times.

After winning the state contest, Oliva 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.

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.

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

“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.”