HVACR Industry Groups Fight Hard to Battle the Membership Gap
From new classes to a la carte offerings, the ‘what and how’ of member services strives to keep up
Whither the Elk?
According to data cited in 1995 and 2014, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks’ national membership reached 1.64 million members in 1980. That was an all-time peak for the fraternal organization, which was founded in 1868. By 2012, the number of Elk roaming social lodges across the U.S. had dropped by half.
Consider an aging, male-dominated member base, and the Elks’ journey might be relevant not only for contractors fighting personnel shortages but also for some of the organizations that recruit and serve those owners. Indeed, out of the lodge and back in the workplace, a wide swath of professional associations wrestles with its own membership challenges. In the HVAC sector, the risk is a subpar or misinformed talent pool, with unwelcome repercussions throughout the industry.
Member rolls for professional associations in general took a hit during the Great Recession. They saw a fairly consistent and moderate rebound over the subsequent few years, according to a recent survey of associations by Marketing General Inc., but that tide has ebbed.
In the HVAC contracting sector, a review of Service Roundtable, ACCA, and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) illustrates how each organization works to find its own way in an era where the workforce and the internet are just two evolving factors.
“We haven’t seen the growth that we’ve seen in past years,” said ACCA interim CEO and President Barton James.
ACCA has 3,000 members, he said, but the association’s members are contractors/companies, not individual members.
“We’re not alone in those challenges,” James reported. “We hired a firm to take a deep dive in surveying and interviewing members to find out what’s going on. What we saw matched up with what other trade associations are seeing.”
RSES has traditionally seen a decline in membership numbers year to year over the past decade, said Lori Schiavo, executive vice president.
“I am happy to say that over this past year, it remained stagnant (no decline),” she said. “To me, that is better news than any sharp dips, but we still have our work cut out for us.”
Between changing demographics and channels for reaching a potential member base, membership decisions may be as complex as ever for professional associations. That contributes to why Schiavo sees staying open-minded and being “willing to change strategy on a dime if needed” as one of the RSES administration’s most important assets.
Not that that’s always comfortable.
“We have had to shift some of our staff,” she acknowledged.
And RSES is not alone, with ACCA undergoing some leadership changes in recent months as well. Change is hard for all parties, Schiavo said, but she sees it as an occasional necessary evil to stay current or ahead of the times.
Service Roundtable has enjoyed a stretch on the net-gain side of the curve recently, according to Matt Michel, president, Service Nation Inc.
Michel relayed that over the last three years, the Service Roundtable has added a net of more than 1,500 member companies.
“We continue to grow steadily and see no reason for that to abate in the coming years,” he said.
One reason Service Roundtable may not have experienced the growing (or stagnating) pains felt by many traditional associations is that his group does not have such a long history or legacy model.
“Since we initially formed as an internet-based organization, younger contractors gravitated toward us,” Michel said. “They intuitively understood our offering.”
DUES HAVEN’T MOVED
While the sources for this story offered a range of commentary and tactics, a common theme arose from one question: Is there a misconception about individual associations that helps or hinders membership?
“We’re not big enough to be ACCA members” is a recurring belief, according to Todd Washam, ACCA’s director of industry and external relations.
“Some think that we are only for large contractors,” echoed Michel. “While it’s true that many large contractors belong to the Service Roundtable, we designed the program so that the smallest contractor could afford it and find tremendous value.”
One could be forgiven for wondering if that sort of comment might be good, common-sense welcoming language as much as anything. However, a look at those two organizations’ dues structures does back up the idea that smaller companies need not hesitate.
“When we launched in 2002, we charged $50 per month for the Service Roundtable,” Michel said. “We still charge $50 per month.”
Contractors can opt into other, higher-cost programs like the Retail Contractor Coalition, which is a turnkey branding program, or an “intensive best practices group” called Service Nation Alliance, but those don’t affect the Service Roundtable cost or offerings.
Meanwhile, James recalled that ACCA’s current $575 annual membership fee was what ACCA members were paying when the association de-federated and detached from all state-level organizations about five years ago. He said that sticking with the fixed structure and amount helped navigate that transition, but he did acknowledge that the current setup is something the organization will likely revisit and possibly change at some point.
“We have great corporate partners, but we want membership to support membership,” James said.
Washam added another piece of counterintuitive information about the ups and downs of membership.
“Our membership grows when the economy is not doing so well,” he said. “When everyone tightens their belts, they realize they need something to separate themselves [from the competition].”
Looking at those yearly dues alongside other options and considering that it covers all of a company’s employees, Washam said, members often decide that it makes more sense to cut other (often more costly) marketing expenses or consultants instead of canceling that membership.
Schiavo reports that RSES has not adjusted dues in years, either, so she doesn’t see that as a deterrent. However, she said she has always heard (and continues to hear) that RSES is the HVACR industry’s best-kept secret.
“The exclusivity of our club has hindered growth, which is something we’re working to change,” she said.
In one twist on the usual dues model, Schiavo said that RSES is also working to change the membership structure so that people can buy what they need rather than practicing an “all or none” membership model.
A la carte pricing for individual member services and events has come up more often in recent years in the association world. It may not be a good fit for every association or every membership base, but the concept has gained some traction in an era where consumers increasingly expect to make purchases based more on their individual needs and less on a vendor’s predetermined package of services.
KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD
It remains impossible to stereotype any single age group, but the a la carte approach may point toward the sensibilities of many younger workers, too.
“In general, I feel like this next generation does not consist of ‘joiners,’” said Schiavo, “in that information is available to them at all times at the touch of a button.”
Then she asked the natural follow-up question: But is that information correct, and how would the public know?
“Because there is no measurement of that in the current state of information accessibility, people may or may not be performing work incorrectly, which leads to callbacks, safety issues, standard/regulation violations and more,” she pointed out, echoing concerns of contractors and manufacturers alike.
ACCA also sees the younger generation as more value-minded than concerned with joining for its own sake and has reacted with a renewed focus on education and training. Washam said ACCA has seen progress via participation in its contractor-to-contractor Management Information Exchange (MIX) groups. Now and then, he recalled, two generations of contractors will be on a phone call together, and there might be a “parental nudge” to participate in that kind of activity.
James added another positive recent indicator: more outside interest in ACCA events as a way to reach younger members. He cited technology companies and other non-contractor businesses that have identified ACCA sponsorship as a worthy part of their own marketing strategies.
“Membership is all about mission and value,” concurred Michel.
He is encouraged by the feedback about Service Roundtable’s own new foray into education and training for employees that he calls “a game changer.”
His organization recently partnered with a nationally recognized tier one university to adapt live business training courses for the industry.
“Taught over the internet one Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday a month, the courses lead to a series of certification programs in management and leadership, sales, financial management, human resources, and operations,” Michel said. “This, in turn, can be converted to college credit with a path toward a bachelor’s degree with a Service Business Management major.”
Beyond the direct benefits for employees, Michel sees it helping owners as a recruiting tool. As for member buy-in, he said that 97 percent were willing to co-fund the program with their employees, adding that more than two-thirds of owners were willing to pay to be included in the early stages.
Meanwhile, RSES has increased its outreach efforts to potential members in 21st-century channels.
“We have been working closer with other organizations to target younger audiences,” said Schiavo. “We are also doing a lot more on our social media pages to get on the younger generation’s radar, such as RSES Fan Club Fridays.”
WHAT IF WE GIVE IT AWAY?
To be fair to the younger set, problems surrounding value and compensation for that value are nothing new to associations.
“Members value government relations but don’t have a history of paying for it,” said Washam, “whereas plumbers have a track record of paying for it.”
The difference? Often it’s because plumbing is a more regulated industry, according to Washam, who noted that more than half of states still do not require an HVAC contractor license. With more refrigerant changes on the horizon, the need to equip members with timely and accurate information will only grow.
“Some of [what we do] is hard to not give away,” James said, especially when it comes to the government and technical work.
But that need to educate may point toward a stealth opportunity for ACCA.
“Our biggest customer is trade schools, not contractors,” said James, “so their students can learn to do things the right way.”
With 50 out of roughly 600 such schools currently ACCA-affiliated, James looks toward increasing the scope of that relationship substantially as a key to improving the success of all parties in the years that follow.
“In a perfect world, manufacturers would require people to be a part of a trade association to do the installations correctly — it will save them money, and make them more money,” he said.
Schiavo also recognizes that the task of improving the quality of the average field tech visit before it happens is a challenge that predates the current demographic pressures.
It isn’t so much the association membership itself affecting the industry, she said, but rather where current HVACR techs, contractors, and facility managers are receiving their information.
“RSES prides itself in the quality of training materials brought forth to the industry, so if you are not a member, you are not receiving those materials,” Schiavo said.
However, in addition to the organization’s a la carte ideas, RSES is trying to open up selected content to anyone as a way to deliver a sample of the association’s value in a painless way for potential members.
Other constants, observed Michel, include an owner’s desire for growth — in most cases.
“Our membership spans everything from single-truck operators to contractors with more than $100 million in gross revenue,” he said. “The common denominator is attitude. They want to grow and improve. Surprisingly, about 40 percent of the industry shows no interest in growth, and we cannot help them.”
IT’S A FOREST OUT THERE
The perennial membership challenges haven’t gone anywhere. The modern challenges driven by contemporary factors aren’t disappearing anytime soon and may get worse before they get better. The organizations in this article continue to pursue their core missions to improve industry performance and clear a path toward member prosperity in their respective ways.
“I truly don’t believe anyone has all the answers,” assessed Schiavo. “But working together [associations, employers and employees, government officials, and beyond], I feel like we can find solutions to our common problems.”
As for the Elks, what started as a post-Civil War vehicle for male-only socializing and service expanded to include women (only after legal challenges to its policy) in 1995. Its original leaders probably never envisioned that. Current Elks leadership is likely relieved to see, according to its online info, a partial membership recovery from that low point in 2012 back across the 1 million mark.
Traditions and track records can be valuable, but willingness to embrace the contemporary mix of ways to reach, retain, and resonate with members seems to be the key for making the leap into the next decade. Standing still, on the other hand, hasn’t proven to be much of a strategy — one doesn’t have to be an association or a contractor to know that the “deer in the headlights” experience doesn’t work out well for anyone involved.
Publication date: 1/9/2019