In the business of contracting, it’s not always the big guys encroaching on your territory. Sometimes it’s a bunch of little guys — moonlighters.

 “We had an unusually large number of unlicensed contractors underbidding us,” said Peter Proferes, owner of PJ Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, Winter Haven, Fla. He is also the apprenticeship coordinator for the Polk County School Board. “Then when we go out and bid, customers would look at us like, ‘You’re ripping us off!’”

The mid-Florida contractors started talking to the wholesalers about this situation. However, “It didn’t seem to have any effect,” Proferes stated. Some wholesalers were still selling to unlicensed people.

Shane and Randy Pilkenton, owners of R&R Air Conditioning Co., Eagle Lake, helped organize the concerned contractors. At the group’s first meeting, 28 contractors wanted to address the problem of unlicensed competitors.

The contractors voted to form an association. In February they officially became the Central Florida Cooling, Refrigeration & Heating Contractors Association. The organization holds a general meeting and a board meeting each month.

The initial membership drive signed up 18 charter members. Proferes became president, and Shane Pilkenton was named treasurer.

Educate the public

One of the goals of the association is “to educate the general public to the advantages of hiring a licensed contractor,” said Proferes. If consumers don’t hire someone who’s licensed, “they really have no recourse if they don’t get a good job.”

The licensing bureau has provided the group with a complete list of all licensed businesses in Polk County. If a member sees a truck on a job with no identification, he will call to see if a permit has been pulled.

But Pilkenton emphasized, “We don’t want to put him [the unlicensed contractor] out of business. We want to put him into business legally.” The association even helps these competitors get their licenses.

Since the member-contractors now talk to area wholesalers as an organization, they carry more clout, noted Proferes. Some of the wholesalers have even started asking customers if they’re licensed. “We see a lot more people wanting to get their license.”

Educate the profession

The association has quickly moved beyond its original focus to add another goal — educating the profession, both those already in and those looking to join.

The group already has started conducting seminars for contractors. It tries to have at least one seminar per month, “if not two,” Proferes said. Jim Wilson, of Quality Air, Lakeland, is committee chair in charge of education.

The association is now involved with the apprenticeship program in Polk County. This “offers us an input into what is being trained and what kind of training is provided,” remarked Proferes.

“Also, the apprenticeship program is starting to look at how they can provide us with better-trained people.”

Payne Air Conditioning has jumped into the program with both feet, taking on 28 apprentices. They are supporting a four-year program, taking people up to testing for a journeyman’s license.

Proferes added, “I’ve been really pleased with the speed at which it came together.” And with the support of the association, the county hopes to develop a pre-apprenticeship program in the summer months.

Advise the educators

The county’s Ridge and Travis Technical Centers, which both provide air conditioning training, are interested in what the association is doing. They have hired a person to go into the high schools and promote vocational education.

Also, the board of directors of the association has become part of the advisory committee at Ridge Technical Center.

“We are looking for this education-contractor association involvement. This is something that we feel is our future,” said Proferes.

“We’ve got to work to show people that this trade is a good alternative.”

The organization also provides a second opinion to prospective buyers. If a consumer calls and is unsure about a quoted a/c repair, for example, one of the group’s members, chosen on a rotating basis by area, will go out and provide a free second opinion.

Believing strongly in the power of the group, Proferes stated, “If you don’t get together where you can speak as a unified voice, you don’t have the clout to get anything done.” The new Central Florida association has very quickly begun speaking loud and clear, and is making its presence felt.

Said Pilkenton, “It’s really changed our industry in Polk County.”