Contractor answers leadership call

In answer to a call for more leadership by Editor-in-Chief Mike Murphy (CB, Jun. 2001, p. 8), Mark Gindin, a contractor in Portland, OR, sent the following story to us. It’s a great example of leadership in action. We’d like to hear more from uncommon leaders in the HVAC market. In fact, we’ll publish the best stories we receive about contractors who are working to make a difference. Here’s Mark’s story.

As of July, HVAC technicians in Oregon are required to be certified by the state before brazing or welding all refrigerant piping in multi-family and commercial buildings. Single-family dwelling certification will be required next year. The odd thing about the new rule is that the local industry asked for it.

In a move rarely seen in recent history, a mandated technician certification system has been created, endorsed, and approved by ACCA, PHCC, the state government, labor unions, private industry, and educational institutions. The shock is not that there is more regulation. The shock is that this one benefits everyone involved.

The story is a study in common sense, not so common in these times.

It all began two years ago. The state government, prodded by special interest groups, had created a committee to propose a system to prevent untrained (non-union) technicians from welding any copper piping that contained nasty chemicals, such as ammonia and freon. The committee members were prepared to create a rule to allow only certain approved or licensed technicians to perform this work.

When we in the Oregon chapter of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ORACCA) heard about this move, it was difficult to digest. We just couldn’t believe this committee intended to cause such a major upheaval in our businesses.

We are still unsure of the motivation, the politics, and many of the details. We attended some meetings and have the minutes of others that warn about the dangerous gas Freon and its "threat to public safety." After almost a year of committee hearings and proposals, the Legislature was ready to go back to work. We had to come up with a way to hold back the regulatory tide and protect our way of life. Real or not, there was a huge perceived threat to the way we operated. Little did we dream that we could not only protect ourselves, but become a dominant player and benefit the technician, the consumer, and the industry.

In the summer of last year, we asked anyone from the state to visit our ORACCA Board meeting and discuss the issue. Office of Consumer and Business Affairs Manager Mark Long eagerly accepted the invitation. His visit was a revelation. He said his office had actually been working in a vacuum. The only input they had received was from larger refrigeration companies, unions, and public hearings, which people from the industry rarely attended. In addition, he had been directed by the previous Legislature not to expand the Office budget or personnel. He was unsure how he could create the program everyone was asking for without increasing his bureaucracy and his workload.

Now that he and his staff saw we in ORACCA were interested and active, he thought he could take our comments back to the committees and create a program we could all live with. We suggested an alternative. Let ORACCA create a certification program at no cost to the state.

We said we could bring together the Oregon Mechanical Officials Association (OMOA), PHCC, and the industry to create our own technician certification program. In this case, since the state was only officially interested in "protecting the public" from refrigerant, we could be narrow enough in our process to make sure we solved their problem.

Our chapter executives, Suzanne and Dick Stilwill, met with representatives of the Copper Institute and other local experts. Using our experience in training and industry issues, ORACCA created our 61 page certification test. State officials approved the program and it has an effective date of July 1st, 2001. The next phase, certification for technicians working in single family dwellings, will be created and probably take effect early next year.

The ORACCA test is the only program officially approved by the Office of Consumer and Business Affairs. We can now offer it to any organization, including community colleges, distributors, or private training facilities to test technicians. ACCA gets a portion of each test fee to keep the records for the state. As long as existing OMOA mechanical inspectors check for approved technicians who braze, the cost to the state is minimal. The state has no increased staff or enforcement costs.

If you, Dear Reader, have made it through the above droll and dry account of bureaucracy in action, you will have picked up on the various powerful forces and industry interests that interacted to create order from chaos. The State of Oregon, labor unions, ACCA, PHCC, RSES, OMOA, industry consultants, trained professionals and rank amateurs all worked toward their own agenda and got what they wanted.

Although it seems strange for a free market organization such as ORACCA to encourage further regulation, it is actually the far better of two or three evils. We could have had an expensive and intensive state-mandated and administered certification process patterned after other trade licenses. We could have made enemies of organized labor and the state regulators. We could have been just another trade with no standards at the mercy of the rest of the construction industry.

Instead, we saw and created our own destiny. We now have cooperative and respectful relationships with our friends at OMOA, PHCC and UA Local 290. The state boards will consult us on additional changes to the law. Our local association benefits tremendously from the recognition, the respect, and, of course, the income.

For those who are not active in the industry, this shows how much difference only a few voices can make. The key is reason, consistency, and a common goal. None of those are possible without communication and cooperation. Please become involved in the movement in any way you can. Join ACCA, PHCC, MCAA, RSES, SMACNA or whatever group is in your area. Get involved. As our Founding Fathers said: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It starts with a single idea.

Mark Gindin
Portland, OR

Mark Gindin has been on the Board of the Delaware Valley Chapter of ACCA and is now a member of the Oregon chapter, where he was president last year. He can be reached at [email protected]

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