More than ever before, they need to prove their value.

With a few exceptions, trade associations at all levels of the PHC industry are decades removed from their peaks in membership and participation. Some can be blamed for not doing enough to earn their keep, but even those blessed with energetic leadership and programs have trouble overcoming the changes in our society that have rendered many trade associations less relevant over time.

This is not unique to our industry. Colleagues who cover other fields tell me most of their trade associations aren’t what they used to be either.

There are exceptions to the rule. The Mechanical Contractors Association of America comes immediately to mind as one of our industry’s strongest trade associations. A big reason is MCAA’s union-affiliated exclusivity, which enables it to focus efforts on the needs of union plumbing and pipefitting contractors. All MCAA members - large and small, service and construction, plumbing and HVAC - share a common interest in collective bargaining and, growing out of that, are co-stewards of JAT programs that assure an adequate supply of skilled labor. Without such a unifying purpose, most associations struggle to be the proverbial jack-of-all-trades serving diverse membership needs, frequently ending up as master of none.

Also, let’s not overlook the obvious: MCAA has a dues base and charges sufficient activity fees to support a top-notch staff and a wide array of useful services to members. No matter what the endeavor, you tend to get what you pay for.

Exceptions aside, trade associations had their heyday in simpler times when they served as the focal point for industry-specific information, education, communication and social life. Plentiful alternatives exist nowadays for all of those functions. Also, like society at-large, the business world has splintered into even narrower special interest groups.

This explains the success over the past couple of decades of affinity groups such as Nexstar, PSI, CSG, CCA and QSC. Some have territorial membership restrictions, and they target residential service or some other narrow PHC business segment rather than the industry at-large.

Although they’ve siphoned off a few members from traditional trade associations, the affinity groups and service franchises are not the central problem. Their memberships number in the hundreds, whereas the Census Bureau counts more than 87,000 PHC contractors with people on their payroll.

Plus, there are two or three times that number of one-man shops and partnerships. The bigger problem for traditional trade associations is their inability to attract those tens of thousands of lone wolves who don’t join any kind of trade organization. Various member recruitment gimmicks get tried year after year, but nothing seems to work very well for very long. The fundamental problem is simply that the loners don’t see enough value in joining a trade association.

This isn’t to say trade associations have no value. Most still do things that make them worthwhile. Visit the PHCC Web site (, for example, and you’ll find 14 entries under the “Contractor Resources” menu detailing services provided for the membership. They include plenty of meat for the dues dollar.

It’s just that the value provided by most trade associations isn’t as self-evident as it used to be. The onus is on the trade associations, whether local, state, regional or national, to document that value.

Most try to do so in vague terms, pointing to generalities such as education, lobbying, networking, etc. The problem is that most prospective members either don’t value those functions or can’t put a finger on what they’re worth.

For example, most trade associations make the mistake of citing a newsletter or magazine as a value-added service to the membership. However, a publication is worthless if people don’t find it interesting to read. What’s valuable is the industry-specific content contained within the publication. Trade associations need to assign value to the information provided, not the medium.

Ed Rigsbee is a strategic alliance consultant and author who has documented how various association activities add up to thousands of dollars of value over the course of a year (“Associations Deliver Value, But They Don’t Know How Much,”

If you are in a trade association leadership position, do yourself a favor and take the time to read it. Any trade association has a better chance of recruiting and retaining members if they can show in dollars and cents that the value provided far outweighs the cost.

One thing’s for sure - nobody is getting anywhere with platitudes and appeals to industry patriotism.