ACCA holds its 36th annual convention in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS - At this year's ACCA meeting, multicolored plastic beads were as common around the necks of attendees as convention ID badges. New Orleans' official Mardi Gras celebration ended the day before the Air Conditioning Contractors of America's 36th annual convention got under way, but the group was encouraging members to continue a little bit of the party atmosphere for its Feb. 25-28 event. Organizers say this combination of fun and career training worked: about 1,500 members attended the convention.

"We expected record growth after the success of last year's conference in Palm Springs (Calif.), but even we were taken by surprise at the level of enthusiasm that greeted this year's event," ACCA President and CEO Paul T. Stalknecht said.

While association officials were encouraging attendees to have a good time, they also knew that the main reason many people come to conventions is to learn, and they included 44 educational seminars and round-table discussions, the most ever for the ACCA, according to organizers.

Here's an overview of some of this year's seminars and topics.

Stanley Linnertz, director of industry relations at U.S. Investigation Services, said HVAC contractors need to perform background checks on potential employees.

Somebody's watching

Although the phrase "background screening" conjures up images of 1984's all-knowing, intrusive Big Brother for some people, HVAC company owners need to learn a lot more about their workers before hiring them, according to Stanley Linnertz.

Linnertz is director of industry relations at U.S. Investigation Services, a Pennsylvania-based corporate security company whose services include background checks and drug screening.

When you are sending employees into customers' homes as part of their daily routines, its critical that you know if they use drugs or have a criminal history, Linnertz told ACCA members during his Feb. 26 seminar.

While the National Institute on Drug Abuse says the number of drug-abusing U.S. workers has declined substantially in the past 20 years, several government studies say those involved in construction are among the most likely to use drugs or abuse alcohol.

And although the common practice of lying on a job resume is not a crime, more employers are requiring applicants to submit to background checks to see if they have a criminal past. Linnertz said there is good reason for such precautions: More than 50 percent of resumes contain inaccurate or misleading information.

"Simply asking" about a criminal record on a job application is not enough, he said. If an employee's actions lead to a lawsuit, courts expect employers to know if the worker has a criminal background.

"You are protecting your company's heritage. You are protecting your company's future," Linnertz said.

However, background checks cannot be conducted without employees' permission, he added. "It is still their decision if you are going to do a background check or not."

Pennsylvania College of Technology student Brian Woods said graduating HVAC technicians want a chance to prove themselves and earn a fair wage.

What do you want?

The Feb. 26 panel discussion "What a New Service Technician Wants" could have been called "The Generation Gap."

The session was supposed to be a talk between students from Pennsylvania College of Technology's ACCA chapter and HVAC company owners on what future technicians were expecting (or hoped for) as they entered the job market.

But it quickly became clear some contractors in the room took offense at the Williamsport, Pa., students' desires.

As part of their presentation, Dan Shields, the chapter's treasurer, showed HVAC-worker want ads taken from local newspapers.

"The first thing we look at in an ad is the qualification area," Shields said. "The second thing on an ad that might be an eye-grabber for us coming out of school is if a company is willing to compensate for relocation. We're coming right out of school. We are four years in the hole (financially) already. That is definitely a big thing if a company is willing to help, depending upon how far we are going to have to be relocated."

After showing an ad that was full of misspelled words and off-putting phrases such as "no phone calls or walk-in visits," Shields put up an example of what he said today's HVAC students are looking for. This ad mentioned profit-sharing benefits and a wage of $40 an hour.

"This just sounds more inviting for someone coming out of school," Shields said. "It sounds like this company is more dedicated towards their employees. It makes us eager to want to be a part of that team."

Some of the contractors in the audience had had enough.

"I want to enlighten you about something on that ad," one said. "One thing that jumped out at me, and I am sure it jumped out at you, was the $40 an hour. I've been doing this for almost 20 years, and if I saw that ad today, I'd leave the company that I'm working for right now and go there. (But) if you think when you get out of college that you are going to work for something like that immediately, I'd hate to be the bearer of bad news."

Another contractor said the students were unrealistic about their post-college plans.

"Most kids coming out of school today want what it took their parents 30 years to get," he said. "You just can't do that. I don't necessarily need anybody with an education. You know what I need? You know what most contractors in the country need that is very short of? Somebody dedicated, that wants to learn and sees the HVAC field as a career. I can teach you what you need to know."

That comment led Dan Izer, another panel member and president of the school's ACCA chapter, to say, "We are not saying this is what we want. We know we are not going to get $40 an hour coming out (of school). We are well aware of that."

At that point, the school's HVAC department chairman, Marc Bridgens, stepped in. "We'll pay $70 a ticket to watch somebody play a baseball game, but we want to pay our techs $10 an hour," he said.

"Think of younger employees as an investment for tomorrow, not a burden for today."

Some audience members spoke up in support of the students.

"This industry is crying for educated, technical people," one said.

Kevin Holland, vice president of communications and membership services for the ACCA, says companies that use e-mail marketing need to be very careful not to alienate their customers. Get permission before sending any messages, Holland says.

E-mail: making customer connections

Are you using e-mail to keep in touch with your customers? Using e-mail to market your company to consumers is as likely to make them mad as it to make them buy, according to the ACCA's Kevin Holland, who hosted "E-mail Marketing: This Time it's Personal."

Holland is the vice president of communications and membership services for the ACCA. He recently overhauled the association's Web site, adding an e-newsletter that goes out to more than 4,000 members twice a week.

Holland pointed out that ACCA newsletter subscribers had requested to receive it. Too many companies, he said, send out messages that are seen as "spam" - the term for unsolicited e-mail come-ons for everything from home loans to sexual-enhancement devices.

"There is something about spam e-mail that makes us very angry," he said. "People take their computer desktops very personally."

To make sure your e-mail marketing messages aren't automatically deleted, Holland advised members to get e-mail addresses directly, not from third parties, and let people know that you will be using them to inform about sales and special offers.

But even such a system is not foolproof, he added. "Just because people gave you their e-mail address doesn't mean they'll remember giving you their e-mail address."

If you do decide to offer an e-newsletter, many programs are available that can give your publications a professional look and monitor responses for about $50 a month, Holland said.

Other suggestions:

  • A real person's name should always appear in the e-mail's subject line. It should not just give the name of your company. Many recipients will immediately delete any message that looks like an ad, Holland said. He suggests using the name of the company owner, so the message seems more personal.

  • Talk about any charities or community activities your company is involved in. This way, "you're more than just the local contractor."

  • Include special offers only available to newsletter subscribers. This will add value to your marketing messages.

  • Watch out for e-mail filters. Many software programs automatically block bulk-mailed messages. Others filter out e-mails with phrases such as "limited-time only."

Holland said all of his marketing suggestions only applied to contractors who already maintain a company Web site. Otherwise, "There's no point in doing this if you don't have a Web site," he said.

New Orleans attorney Donald C. Massey told ACCA contractors that mold is one of those issues that some trial lawyers are using to abuse the legal system.

Still growing: mold and lawsuits

It seems HVAC contractors cannot escape a convention with at least one discussion about mold. The ACCA offered two, including "Class Action and Mass Tort Litigation in Mold Cases," hosted by local attorney Donald C. Massey.

Massey regularly defends companies involved in class action lawsuits. As many contractors are aware, mold has become a huge liability problem for building owners and those involved in construction. According to some estimates, more than 10,000 mold-related lawsuits are currently in the U.S. court system. Frequently, these cases name any company that worked on a mold-infested building as a defendant.

"The point is, anybody who touched the structure ... is going to be a target," Massey said. "Whoever has a deep pocket that they (lawyers) can get into, they're interested in you."

And while he says the burgeoning number of class action lawsuits has given him a good living, "I don't think this mold litigation is good for you and I don't think it's good for our country."

He said the legal system is being abused by these types of cases. "I just don't think this system has been used in the way people who concocted it intended."

(For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.)