Barbeque is pretty big in Arkansas. For example, the Arkansas HVACR Association’s website shows each chapter’s monthly meeting schedule. A couple of them have standing dates at Smokin’ N Style and the Whole Hog.
Any barbeque consumer would agree that the person in charge of the barbeque pit should be well versed in food safety as well as proper technique. A pitmaster who thinks that “low and slow” means putting the grill closer to the ground may not encounter much success.
Unfortunately, the legislature had not displayed an appetite for making sure that licensed HVAC contractors exert some effort to maintain minimum competence and up-to-date knowledge. Citizens paid the cost.
“We've seen way too many situations where homeowners had been taken advantage of, not by people who were bad people, but by people who didn't know what they were doing,” said Tom Hunt, executive director of the Arkansas HVACR Association.
That situation will change thanks to HB1712, a one-page bill that Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law in May of this year. Like a good plate of ribs, what went into making HB1712 was more complicated and took a lot longer than some people might expect. However, it paid off, and HVAC professionals in other states may want to steal some of Arkansas’ recipe.
Half-Day of HVAC
It took 14 years — seven legislative sessions — to get this idea from legislation to law. So what, exactly, was the big idea?
Quoting SB1712 directly, it allows the state’s HVACR Licensing Board to establish a requirement of not more than “four hours per year of continuing education if the board determines that a specific class of license requires continuing education.”
Arkansas recognizes licensees, typically the owners, and it recognizes registrants, which would be the technicians. This requirement doesn’t necessarily guarantee any additional training for the actual technicians working on systems. It represents one half-day of training a year for the license holder, in the hope that the owners will then pass along what they learned to the technicians.
Even with a requirement diluted to that degree, Hunt said that “we were very fortunate that it passed.”
So What Changed?
Success came after 14 years of steady effort, but also because more help showed up this time.
Hart said that ACCA played a role during last three legislative sessions in getting the word out to the general public in the state, which was “very, very helpful.”
Lennox sent a letter to state legislators who represent areas where the company has manufacturing operations, asking them to consider the measure.
The effort also picked up a key ally in the form of Senator Jane English, whom Hunt described as “the queen of promoting the trades and education for the trades in our state.”
Perhaps most important was the effort of Rep. Roger Lynch, who had presented the legislation for the last three times.
“I think his tenacity and persistence really played a big role,” Hunt said. “And to his credit, he put his credibility on the line and got Senator English involved” to boost its chances on the other side of the legislature.
Indeed, the measure saw initial votes defect as the senate vote went on, and it ultimately passed with a single vote to spare. Hunt credits that victory to the “deep respect that everybody has for Senator English.”
And with that, the bill finally could proceed to the Governor’s office for signature. ACCA CEO and president Barton James joined Hunt and others to attend the signing.
In a follow-up statement, ACCA government relations representative and coalitions manager Chris Czarnecki said, “The HVACR industry is constantly evolving, and continuing education requirements help licenses function as a test of competency as opposed to a tax companies and contractors have to pay for doing business.”
From Approval to Reality
The bill may have passed the gauntlet at last, but what Hunt called “a really strong anti-regulation, anti-licensing mood” in the legislature still represents some views outside the state capitol as well.
“We have heard legislators say they think it ought to be ‘buyer beware’” when it comes to HVAC work.
“You’re always going to find certain people who don’t want continuing education,” he added. “But legitimate people with businesses are very, very much in favor of it. Our goal now is to make sure that it’s easily accessible, and very affordable.”
That leads to another component in the string of critical people necessary to make something like this work: the state licensing board.
In Arkansas’ case, Hunt likes his chances “because we have an excellent, excellent licensing board. They’re good, practical people who want things to be easy, and yet they know how important it is that we have continuing education.”
In addition, the licensing board has been reassigned to the purview of the Arkansas Department of Labor and Licensing. It had previously been working under the Department of Health. Not surprisingly, that section was less familiar with licensing and was not the best match.
HVAC leaders who might pursue continuing education measures in their own areas should extend their focus beyond any needed legislative wins, including getting acquainted with the administrative structures that would be responsible for making the concept function effectively.
Stick With It
Moving from the public to private sector, one more key ingredient is expected to bring the new law to life: HVAC distributors.
“Oh, it’s a fabulous thing for distributors,” Hunt explained, “because they’ll give a class, and it’ll be the same dozen or couple dozen folks who come, and those are the ones that don’t create problems. The ones who don’t come are the ones that are constantly on the phone, wearing them out trying to get questions answered.”
Hart envisions not just fuller classrooms for distributors’ training, but the final result of many businesses running more smoothly and more profitably, thanks to more of them “knowing what they’re doing and getting it installed or fixed right the first time. It’s a definite win for absolutely everybody.”
Long before any of that actual payoff, a measure like this needs its core supporters. Years ago, Hunt told state legislators that his group would show up every two years with the same issue, “until it passed or I was dead.”
That kind of commitment is easier to maintain with the certainty that the idea serves the greater good.
“This was not a fleeting thing for us to try to find a way to become more profitable,” Hunt said, and his group is certainly not in the business of endorsing unneeded layers of government, either.
“We knew it was the right thing for the consumer. And that the industry would be better off for it. And we would not give up on it.”