“Do you know how many plumbers actually do HVAC?” That’s the quote that stood out to us as we interviewed Ken Neilsen, owner of AccuAire Inc., Reading, Massachusetts, about his new role as president of PHCC – National, which becomes official at next month’s PHCC CONNECT 2018 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Ken does have a point; plenty of plumbers, in fact, do HVAC work. But typically, it gets second billing. So you would expect that a contractor who does almost nothing but HVAC work will be the first to remind everyone that it isn’t just a supporting player.
Ken was in his early 20s when an uncle who worked as an estimator for an HVAC contractor suggested the trades as a career. He went on to study at the Northeast Institute of Industrial Technology, got an HVAC job and he’s been at it ever since.
He opened his own shop in 1987 and currently runs three trucks. His crews do some hydronic heating and snowmelt, but the majority is residential and commercial HVAC service and installation. He also specializes in an interesting niche – gas- and water-fired chillers.
“Well, one of the companies I first started working with was a Bryant dealer, and at the time Bryant had gas ammonia chillers,” he explains. “And it’s something I continued to work on as I took another job. Finally, when I went into business for myself, I needed some parts and I got friendly with the rep with New England, and he gave my name to everybody who had a chiller.”
Which is as good as any way to get your name known.
Ken first got involved in the PHCC around 20 years ago after he and his son attended a Massachusetts trade show event. Ken started volunteering at the state trade show and eventually became the chairman of the trade show committee. Later, he was asked to run for national office, which is how he will be sworn in on Oct. 12 as the new president during PHCC CONNECT 2018.
We had the opportunity to talk to Ken and get an idea of what his plans are for his coming term.
What do you consider the biggest challenge for the industry at this time, and what are your thoughts on addressing it?
Everybody’s talking about the work force shortage, and addressing that issue has to start at the schools and with parents. We can’t just keep pushing kids to go to college because some of those kids just don’t want to go to college. I think we have to give them the other option of going to a vocational school or technical college and learning a trade. Whatever the trade might be, there’s a big demand for all those jobs.
Do you see a change in attitude toward kids enrolling in a trade as opposed to seemingly only being expected to attend a four-year college?
I’d like to say, yes. I'm a skills judge, so I am exposed to a lot of young people as I judge the HVAC students in vocational schools throughout Massachusetts. There are around 20 schools involved. Last May I had conversations with two girls from the local vocational school and neither one of them was going to stay in the trades!
As it turned out, one of the girls wanted to be a mechanical engineer and the other girl also wanted to be an engineer. One said she would be the first person in her family who would go to college. You really can't say anything bad about that, can you?
A few years ago, we did a mock job interview for some plumbing students. The first question we asked is where do you see yourself in the next five years? A girl who had been in the plumbing program throughout her entire high school education said, "I'm going to be a school teacher." So, one of the other contractors asked, "Well then why are you in this program?" She replied that this was all just in case so she would have something to fall back on.
So, while I haven’t seen a lot of change in attitude for going to a trade school during recent conversations, I am still optimistic. All we can continue to do is keep trying to promote the trades to kids still in school. And to the parents of those kids. Let’s all make sure that kids in school today know that they have another choice.
I know you do a lot with the Massachusetts PHCC. What is this group doing to promote the trades?
Our Massachusetts PHCC executive director is actually going out and visiting our state vocational schools. I definitely plan to do that with him. And besides talking about the trades as a career, the PHCC – National also has a student membership so I would like to promote that during our visits so that we can get and keep their interest.
The PHCC Educational Foundation also offers plumbing and HVAC apprentice eLearning courses, available through the PHCC Academy. Those online courses provide employers and apprentices with an alternative training option to classroom-based instruction for a four-year apprentice program. It’s recognized by the Department of Labor, and the program must be approved by state apprenticeship agencies. The Foundation has partnered with more than 20 PHCC state chapters that have obtained state approval for the courses.
What other plans have you made as you prepare to move into the role of president?
I really want to get PHCC known as HVAC trade group as well as a plumbing trade group because a lot of people just think of it as a plumbing association. I have a problem with this, for example, because as chairman of the Massachusetts trade show, I try to talk to manufacturers or service providers to have a booth and they'll go, "What do I want to have a booth for? It's a plumbing show." Well, it's not just a plumbing show. Do you know how many plumbers actually do HVAC? Not enough people realize that.
That’s one reason I think it’s great that the RSES is co-locating its annual conference with ours, and there will be a common trade show floor for everyone from both organizations. I think that will make a big difference this year.
We’ve also made some changes to the HVAC apprentice contest this year. We used to have to go offsite for some parts of the contest. This year, every part of the HVAC contest will take place on the trade show floor so everyone can see the processes.
Finally, I want everyone to know that we are being heard on Capitol Hill. For example, right now, we’re actually working on a healthcare program that could be made available to our members.
I want everyone to know what we’re doing for the industry, and that we are heavily involved with legislative and regulatory affairs. We've even done a lot of work directly with the White House lately. Washington, D.C., does want the PHCC members’ opinions on many different programs.
So, I’m also looking forward to visiting as many state associations as possible to get the word out there and let the know what national is doing for them because that's a big thing. Everybody's busy, and not everyone can take the time to read every bit of communication they may receive from the PHCC – National. The personal touch always helps.
What has been the best piece of advice you've received in life that has allowed you to be successful and pay it forward for your involvement in the industry?
When I first went into business I was commercial, commercial, commercial. I had a business coach come in and tell me that I had to do residential otherwise I was not going to have any cash flow. So now I still do plenty of commercial but also plenty of residential. I think that has made a big difference. Without the cash flow, you're stagnant as a business owner.
What advice would you give to the next generation of plumbing, heating and cooling contractors as they start out their careers?
Ideally, they should pursue their license. That said, since licensing isn’t required everywhere, I believe all p-h-c contractors should uphold the highest industry standards for training and excellence. I also would ask that they pursue professional licensure and continuing education requirements in their states because what we do on a daily basis has a direct impact on public health and safety, and the environment.
I’ve also heard that a number of manufacturers are considering implementing policies that if an unlicensed contractor or handyman services their equipment, it will void the warranty.
Bottom line, a license enhances your credibility as a contractor. It backs up your knowledge