But as different as they are, each community holds similar business concerns for HVAC contractors, namely licensing (or the lack thereof) and qualified technicians (or the lack thereof). The NEWSrecently sat down with Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) members in each community to talk about these topics during informal roundtable discussions.
LICENSING ON THEIR MINDSIn the Chicago area, contractors Chris and Gordon Colditz of Laco Mechanical Services and Bill Semitekol of Duo-Temp Inc. talked about the lack of license requirements for HVAC contractors and how that is opening the door for future problems for the trade.
Semitekol noted plumbers and electricians need to be licensed and added, “Theoretically you need two people to install a hot water heater because of licensing - someone to install the water heater and another person to make the connection.”
Chris Colditz talked about the efforts of the local Chicago unions to write the wording for any new license laws, which would require all HVAC contractors to have a master electrician on staff. “If we don’t force the issue, we will all need a master electrician in order to install a water heater. Otherwise, we might as well get out of the water heater business.”
In Louisville, contractors Greg Nickels of Automatic Air Corp. and Mark Norenberg of Air Comfort of Kentucky Inc. discussed a different twist to the licensing topic. Louisville has licensing requirements but the same is not true for the state of Kentucky, which is where the conflict lies.
“This is basically an issue of outstate contractors versus metropolitan areas like Louisville and Lexington,” said Nickels. “We are pushing to hire 50 new inspectors to work across the entire state. But we just had $700,000 taken out of our $900,000 accumulated funds by the governor who declared a budget crisis. The funds, which are collected from licensing and permitting fees, was earmarked to hire these new inspectors - inspectors the government has mandated that we hire under new licensing laws. This is basically taxation without representation.”
Both Nickels and Norenberg believe there is a big gap between the professional contractors and the other people who “don’t practice business ethics very well.” Nickels said licensing would make a big difference. Norenberg gave another example of how unprofessional contractors would have a hard time competing.
“I think that the R-410A change will thin the herd,” he said. “The switch to 13 SEER didn’t have a profound impact right away because people were still matching 13 SEER units with 10 SEER coils. It worked, but not real well. These contractors could get away with this fix for a couple of years, maybe. But not converting from R-22 to R-410A will have an immediate impact. The problems will spring up immediately.”
Speaking of R-22, Semitekol noted, “Contractors will probably horde reclaimed R-22 and when the prices for it hit $10 a pound, they will be saying ‘Here ya’ go.’ I don’t think R-22 will ever go away. Look at all of the refrigerators that use it.”
QUALIFIED WORKER WOESIn the Chicago area, Chris Colditz said it was a problem getting contractors involved with ACCA, where they could learn about employee hiring and training tips. She believes that idea sharing helps a great deal, especially when it comes to employee hiring and retention. “There are so many contractors in the Chicago area and very few are involved in contractor groups,” she said.
If more contractors shared ideas, they may have better employees. At least that’s part of Semitekol’s thought process. “It amazes me how little that HVAC students know about the refrigeration cycle,” he said. “I remember talking to a tech about going up on a roof in January to repair a rooftop a/c unit. He didn’t understand why people needed their a/c fixed in the middle of the winter.”
Gordon Colditz added, “Kids nowadays are parts changers, not mechanics.”
Nickels tacked on a comment about licensing that affects technicians. “State licensing will raise the quality of technicians,” he said. “It’s a mixed blessing because while it raises the quality, it reduces the overall pool of available talent. The pass rate for first-time takers of the state licensing exam is under 40 percent.”
Nickels said it was hard to find good help, even in the Louisville metropolitan area of 1 million people. He noted it was time for contractors to stop “griping about the problem and start doing something to attract young people to the trade.” Nickels gave an example of what really is an indication of the problem that the HVAC faces - an example that involves the “high school counselor mentality.”
“Ten years or so ago, our company participated in a job fair at a local high school,” he said. “During the event a school counselor came up to me and said she was thankful we were there. We were a place she could send her problem students to. It has been an uphill battle for me. I’ve even had parents who have literally pulled their kids from our booth because they didn’t want them talking with us.”
Norenberg said some techs don’t stick around long enough to develop a good career. They become his competitors. “A lot of former techs know the price of the equipment we sell and figure they can make a lot of money by starting their own business and selling it for less,” he said.