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Trade Associations Can Help Your HVAC and Plumbing Business

Nov. 11, 2021
If you think you can go it alone, you're probably mistaken. An association or business group offers networking and training opportunities you just won't experience by buying that new truck.

Small-business owners have a lot to manage to keep their businesses afloat—advertising, marketing, labor (personnel and payroll), insurance, rent or building upkeep, etc. Home services businesses such as plumbing and heating contracting firms have the additional overhead of trucks, tools, licenses and certifications, and training.

And small businesses are critical to the economy, especially as we climb ourselves out of the COVID-19 pandemic hole of the last 16 months. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Business Employment Dynamics report states that small businesses created 10.5 million net new jobs between 2000 and 2019, accounting for 65.1 percent of net new jobs created since 2000.

The federal coronavirus relief package created the Paycheck Protection Program in March 2020 to provide fully forgivable loans to small-business owners hit hard by the pandemic. As of May 31, 2021 (the end of the program), the Small Business Administration approved nearly $800 billion in PPP loans.

However, small businesses struggled even before the pandemic. About 20 percent of new companies close within a year, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, only a handful (34 percent) make it to their 10th anniversary.

It can be overwhelming for independent business owners, especially if they have no business training. It’s the reason many trade publications, such as Contracting Business, and its companion publication, CONTRACTOR Magazine, are in existence: to provide information to help you run your business.

However, many of these owners ignore a vital business resource—the trade association. These groups offer education and training (business and technical), advocacy (state and federal), industry communication, member discounts and peer networking. They can benefit those just starting out or those industry veterans looking to keep their skills up. Every trade has at least one; the plumbing, heating, cooling and piping industries have many.

It can be overwhelming for independent business owners, especially if they have no business training. It’s the reason many trade publications such as Contracting Business, and its companion publication, CONTRACTOR Magazine, are in existence: to provide information to help you run your business.

The major HVACR and plumbing associations are: Air Conditioning Contractors of America; American Fire Sprinkler Association; Electric and Gas Industries Association; Mechanical Contractors Association of America; National Association of Oil and Energy Service Professionals; National Fire Sprinkler Association; Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association; Radiant Professionals Alliance; and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association.

The plumbing, heating, cooling and piping (PHCP) industry also has affinity groups that are part of a larger organization. PHCC has the Quality Service Contractors, Construction Contractors Alliance (new construction) and Union-Affiliated Contractors. The Mechanical Service Contractors of America and Plumbing Contractors of America are part of MCAA. ACCA’s Radiant and Hydronics Council is an advisory committee consisting of hydronics contractors.

Best practices groups—such as Business Development Resources; Nexstar Network; Service Roundtable/Service Nation Alliance; Success Group International -- for HVAC, electrical, plumbing and roofing contractors; and The Unified Group—focus on business-related education, training and networking.

PHCP women have access to organizations focusing on their distinct needs and issues in the industry: Women in HVACR, Women in the Mechanical Industry, and Women in Energy

Entities such as the PHCC Educational Foundation, MCAA’s National Education Initiative and EGIA’s Contractor University package their organizations’ educational offerings for easy access to members, but education is one of the biggest perks of any association, affinity group or best practices group.

PHCP women have access to organizations focusing on their distinct needs and issues in the industry: Women in HVACR, Women in the Mechanical Industry, Women in Energy. 

Topics range from starting a marketing program to pricing models to filling the skilled labor gap. Technicians can beef up their technical knowledge, and apprentices can learn new skills.

As we struggled with the pandemic last year, PHCC, MCAA, ACCA and others developed a series of webinars to assist their members in navigating the coronavirus minefield to continue serving their customers—and keeping their employees safe.

And while many look forward to learning about new products and technologies at industry conventions and trade shows, virtual became the new norm in 2020. Social distancing protocols and other pandemic-related rules made in-person events cost-prohibitive.

As we struggled with the pandemic last year, PHCC, MCAA, ACCA and others developed a series of webinars to assist their members in navigating the coronavirus minefield to continue serving their customers—and keeping their employees safe.

Meticulous planning and organization are how these groups transitioned to and conducted successful virtual events where members could learn about their industry and converse… well, try to converse with industry colleagues when everyone was not talking over each other.

“All our surveys and our feedback came back strong,” says Colleen Keyworth, who coordinates Women in HVACR’s marketing and event planning. “Many people enjoyed our conference, said it was different than others they had attended in the past. Everybody appreciated the fact that they felt as if they were connecting with people.”

This fall, "PHCCConnect2021" was staged as  an in-person event, Oct. 20-22, in Kansas City, Mo., after its first virtual event in 2020, where succession planning, budgets, leadership and any COVID-19-related sessions were immensely popular.

“Since the pandemic, PHCC has introduced many new courses, webinars and resources to make sure our members had the right type of business management training for them and specialized training for their employees,” says PHCC President Hunter Botto. “Looking ahead, we will have a full lineup of more than 20 education sessions at PHCC CONNECT2021 that will focus on topics PHCC members requested. We also will present a preview of an exciting new PHCC Finance Boot Camp for PHC business owners.”

Botto notes that it is very important for PHC contractors to stay informed about the latest trends and developments that affect their businesses.

“With the many disruptions that occurred as a result of the pandemic, we’ve all learned that contractors need to adapt quickly to be successful in these changing times,” he says. “By tapping into educational resources that are available, business owners can ensure that they and their employees are up to speed on the latest best practices and technologies to become more agile and resilient in the long term.”

ACCA Springs Into Action

“From day one, we pushed to make sure that HVAC contractors were essential,” says Barton James, CEO of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). “We were ultimately successful. More than 10,000 HVACR professionals made their voices heard directly through our efforts. Our members have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic to help keep our country’s infrastructure working, in addition to keeping Americans comfortable and safe in their homes.”

James notes that ACCA’s advocacy program participation has remained strong throughout the pandemic on issues ranging from energy-efficiency tax incentives to the Paycheck Protection Program to education. “Our members have stepped up and played a major role in advancing the contractor agenda,” he adds.

“The need to stay connected during the pandemic increased demand for knowledge in every way,” James notes. “While in-person meetings were unavailable, ACCA and contractors found ways to interact and deliver necessary information through online education and webinars. We saw a major increase in enrollment for online learning. Those methods have stuck and have changed the way we do business.” 

“The uniqueness of the COVID-19 pandemic brought ACCA and our members closer,” James notes. “ACCA has offered a robust online learning library for more than a decade. As members turned to education and training for their staff during downtimes, ACCA was able to provide more learning opportunities faster, and in a way that has now become the standard.”

The pandemic brought on the return of ACCA’s ComfortU on-demand education, "Rise to the Top" live virtual courses, and "Codes & Coffee". They have proven to be popular membership features.

Help Finding New Recruits

The educational value that associations offer comes from recognized national speakers and those successful in the PHCP industry who find a calling to help raise the professional bar.

With the critical shortage of skilled workers that the PHCP industry continues to face, associations can lend members a helping hand.

The PHCC Educational Foundation’s career training is helping contractors attract and retain the next generation of workers. Its online courses include "Plumbing and HVAC Workforce Readiness," "Fast Track to Service Plumbing" and four-year plumbing and HVAC apprentice courses. 

“The flexibility of the foundation’s e-learning courses provides contractors and students with an alternative solution to classroom-based instruction,” says Foundation Chair Kevin Tindall. “In New Jersey, where my business is located, the foundation’s online courses are also helping us to attract new members.”

Value Propositions in ACCA Membership

“As our industry evolves and consolidates, ACCA is moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to contractor membership,” Barton James explains. “If you like the membership you have, you can keep it, but in the coming months, we will offer contractors the option to upgrade for enhanced benefits such as unlimited on-demand training and discounted membership for additional locations.”

“As top contractors buy up their neighbors, the need for ACCA’s consistent training, quality standards and governmental advocacy have never been greater,” James says.

“Additionally, we are looking at ways to connect ACCA members directly with their representatives in Washington,” he notes. “This may include everything from site visits to shop tours to Zoom calls. We want to make sure policymakers understand the importance of the work that our members do and allow our members to tell their stories in the process.”

James notes that networking is an ongoing driver for ACCA members — ACCA MIX Groups, Contractor Forum and in-person events. At the organization’s 2022 annual conference in St. Louis, March 28-30, ACCA will introduce SpeedNetworking to facilitate engagement in ACCA MIX Groups. 

ACCA Improvements

ACCA has completely automated the membership renewal and joining process, James notes. “A member can more easily renew online and set up membership and Quality Assured Accreditation for auto-pay with monthly or annual renewal.”

He adds that the HVACR contractor organization has an all-new member portal and the ACCA 365 app, making it easier to access member benefits that support every aspect of running a successful HVACR contracting company.

“Additionally, ACCA has been working to rebuild its alliances with state and local contracting organizations — combining ACCA’s national resources with their unsurpassed local networking and training events,” James explains. “In recent months, the Metropolitan Air Conditioning Contractors of New York and the Minnesota Heating and Cooling Association became ACCA Allied Contracting Organizations; we’re exploring new and renewed relationships with many others.”

“The shift to a more virtually oriented world has affected us quite a bit,” James says. “I believe ACCA has navigated the new terrain very well, if not seamlessly. We’re proud that we’ve been able to deliver for our members every step of the way without any interruption in our operations.”

Advocacy

Another big perk of association membership is advocacy. These organizations monitor what is going on in Washington and state legislatures to ensure that any legislation affecting PHCP professionals benefits those professionals and the industry, not harm them.

As the saying goes, “There is strength in numbers,” and PHCP associations use that member strength to influence lawmakers in backing certain pieces of legislation deemed friendly to the industry. Organizations such as PHCC, MCAA, SMACNA and others have annual sojourns to our nation’s capitol to meet with legislators and discuss key regulatory and legislative issues.

These issues could be unfair competition, apprenticeship programs or a national infrastructure bill.

The infrastructure legislation that Congress is now trying to put together is of immense interest to our industry. Legislative liaisons of national associations are in contact with key lawmakers in both parties to keep PHCP professionals in the loop.

Networking is a big perk, too, but not as distinctive as association membership's education and advocacy benefits.

If you are an independent PHCP business owner, take a leap of faith and join a local or state chapter of a national association listed previously. Even if you don’t believe you need help running your business, everyone needs help these days hiring and retaining skilled workers. You may find members who took a different tack and were successful.

The price of admission is worth it.

Kelly Faloon is a contributing writer to CONTRACTOR Magazine and principal of Faloon Editorial Services. The former editor of Plumbing & Mechanical magazine has more than 20 years of experience in the plumbing and heating industry and B2B publishing. She is a journalism graduate of Michigan State University.