WICHITA, Kan. — The city of Wichita is taking a new initiative to alleviate the shortage of qualified hvac installers. Since January, officials have been allowing new tradespeople to obtain a restricted journeyman’s certificate via a shortened testing process.

The new certificate allows certificate recipients to work only on installations in single- and two-family residential housing.

“The test is administered by Wichita State University,” said Dan Leidy, construction inspector supervisor for Wichita’s Plumbing and Mechanical Division of Central Inspection. “It was approved by the city law department and city council. It is restricted because it does not cover service, repair, or commercial work.

“Builders in our area were having a hard time finding hvac installers. We started issuing tickets to them for using apprentices.”

Leidy said the standard exam, administered by Block & Associates, had a high failure rate — approximately 70%. Contractors also wanted exams that related more closely to the type of work they were doing.

“Most guys around here are doing ductwork; they don’t need to know about refrigeration piping,” said Rick Nunnelly, president, Airstock Heating & Air Conditioning. “We initiated the need for a ‘codes-only’ test. We hired a county inspector to teach a pre-exam course so people could pass the code test.”

Once recipients pass the exam, they are granted a renewable certificate. Theoretically, they must retake the exam each year.

Long-range plan

But this may only be a temporary solution to the labor shortage problem.

“We will be offering a new test next year administered by the International Conference of Building Officials [ICBO],” said Leidy. “This will replace the temporary exam, but will be offered along with the Block test.

“At this time, we don’t know what type of exam it will be. Until we know what the new exam looks like, there is no expiration for certificate testing.”

George Fahnestock, owner of Fahnestock Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., is the president of the new local chapter of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). He said the intent of the new exam was to follow the ICBO test format.

“The ICBO test is on codes only,” he said. “It contains a syllabus of codes and sample questions from the exam. Hopefully we can tweak it a little bit to fit the needs of our local and state codes.”

Nunnelly said the new exam already has proven to be a success. Nineteen people passed the most recent exam by getting at least 75% of the answers correct. The only two who failed had not taken the ACCA-approved course.

Not everyone is qualified to take the new course. An applicant must be an ACCA member and have either two years of field experience, or a combination of one year of experience and one year of schooling.

“The course is not mandatory,” added Fahnestock. “It is an eight-hour course that does a good job of prepping the students for the code exam.”

Trade barriers

Nunnelly and Leidy agreed that Wichita’s construction boom has played a big part in the shortage of qualified workers. They don’t want young people to be discouraged from entering the trade.

“Some of these kids are making $6 to $7 an hour, and it has required us to send two of them in the field for every one journeyman,” said Nunnelly. “The problem is, there aren’t enough journeymen to help train them.”

The cost of taking a Block-administered test is $75. Textbooks needed to prepare for the exam cost nearly $400. That may be too steep for young people making $7 an hour. The new test costs $50 to take, and the pre-exam course is $25.

Nunnelly thinks his ACCA group has interested people in the trade. He plans to cement that by working with local educators. A local school, Wichita Technical College, donated one of its classrooms for the new exam.

“We are working directly with the local vocational college,” Nunnelly said. “They are asking us what they should teach their students.

“Pushing through this new licensing test is one of the first things we did as a new chapter of the ACCA. In our first year, we have signed up 57 members.”

Encouraging young people and making the exam easier is one of many goals of this new chapter. As president, Fahnestock said he knows there is a lot of work to be done.

“We are still in our honeymoon year,” he said. “The real proof for our group will be in the second or third year.”