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The Swimming Pool Industry Trade Licensing Dilemma

swimming pool snake oil The swimming pool industry is like the old days of the wild west. While some areas in North America are starting to enjoy some attempt at regulating the pool and spa industry, most of Canada and the USA operates with little to no oversight, certification or trade licensing. When you have a house built, there is an expectation of quality and readily available resources that stipulate to which standard a house must be built. The same goes for the automotive industry. When you buy a new car, there is a standard to which all cars must be built, including countless testing and inspection procedures. When you are buying a swimming pool, most of the time, you are rolling the dice as to what exactly you are going to get.

For every well experienced, well intentioned and integrity driven pool industry worker, there are at least ten who want your money and have a cursory understanding of the industry...at best. I personally have met pool company owners who transitioned from owning their own residential swimming pool directly into advertising high end construction, renovation and maintenance pool services. They had no previous construction experience, and had little to no understanding of plumbing, pumps, filters, heaters, concrete or water chemistry. I watched that company botch at least ten projects, projects that I had bid on and failed to get as, presumably, his price was less than mine. If you can vacuum a pool, and can at least pretend to know what you are talking about, then you basically have all of the minimum qualifications to own a swimming pool company. This, to me, is terrifying.

I also know of another pool company owner that opened a full service pool and spa retail store location without ever having worked a day in the pool and spa industry. Prior to opening their store they had been working as a laborer on an assembly line for fifteen years. I can simply not fathom being so bold as to think you can be active as a profitable business while having none of the requisite skills to make you competent at your job. I can only imagine that moving forward the pool industry will one day be as regulated as any other major trade, but this does nothing to change the last 25 years I have spent trying to educate customers and warn of the importance of due diligence throughout the pool buying process. Also, as of 2017, the problem is a long way from being solved.

Swimming Pool Trade Training

The swimming pool industry is not set up to produce highly trained and highly skilled industry professionals. The pool industry is set up to make money. To take a real world example, in order to become a licensed mechanic in the area I am located you would be required to become a licensed apprentice, of which you would be required to complete 10,000 hours of real world working combined with four full semesters of trade schooling that compliments the in-field experiences. Concluding these minimum requirements you would have the ability to write, and pass, a test designed to display a broad spectrum of minimum industry specific knowledge. The idea is not that after 10,000 hours you have seen everything - but more that after 10,000 you have developed the skills and experience needed to continue learning and experiencing on your own, without supervision of a master mechanic. All of that sounds like a dream compared to the pool industry.

Since there is no restriction on who can, or should, own and operate a pool company, there is a wide spectrum of people who choose to do so. The end result is that there is a lack of congruency in building standards and standard operating procedures for pretty much every pool company active today. The companies that do have established building standards and SOP's have done so by choice and not because there is a legal requirement to do so. This does not change the availability of great pool contractors - there are many great pool companies and amazingly skilled technicians active today. What this does do is drastically lowers the quality of the companies operating at the bottom end of the spectrum. If you pick the wrong company you are not likely to get a slightly substandard product...you are likely to end up with a hole in the ground in your yard and tens of thousands of dollars missing from your bank account. This is not to say that inexperienced companies are going to steal your money, but more an indication that pool contracting is very hard to do and someone less experienced could easily mismanage or under quote a project and end up unable to complete the project or return the money.

Until there is trade licensing that mirrors established standards like electricians, plumbers, carpenters and mechanics then the pool industry will continue to operate in the "wild west" mode that is has been for the past 50 years. A pool that you have installed will only be as good as the person who builds it for you. So why does the pool industry not have all of this stuff in place already? There are almost no other industries that operate in the same capacity that the pool industry does so why do they not just introduce a trade licensing program like every other trade? This, is a good question.

Structuring Of The Pool Industry

Pool industry workers want more regulation. Pool owners want more regulation. Why is it 2017 and we still have no regulation of the pool industry? Well, it is not for lack of trying. Multiple times the industry has attempted to introduce trade licensing, education and certification courses and minimum designations for certain pool contracting activities. The actual problem, as an industry insider, is of a technical nature.

The pool industry is a mix up of various trades all rolled into one. A swimming pool plumber, at least a good one, would need almost as much training as any licensed plumber outside of the pool industry. That is to say 10,000 hours of on site experience plus multiple semesters of theory work to reinforce the field experiences. So that is 5 years of work just to get to be able to be proficient will all aspects of pool and spa plumbing.

Pool plumbing is only one component in a much bigger process however. By the time a pool industry employee can consider themselves well versed they will also need to know carpentry and forming, steel work, advanced concrete and masonry applications, water chemistry and some electrical knowledge. How can you possibly fit all of this into a 5 year, 10,000 hour trade program? The answer is simply that you can not. This is why the industry still lacks a completed and rolled out trade licensing program - you simply can not produce a skilled and well rounded industry worker in that timeframe. You need at least 10,000 hours finishing concrete alone just to produce consistent flat work, and it is not reasonable to have a 20 year trade licensing program.

Previously, there has been discussion to separate the industry into classifications in the same way that you can have an industrial electrician trade designation versus a construction and maintenance electrical trade designation. While a good idea in theory, splitting the industry into pool installations versus pool service and maintenance still is not sufficient to create fully encompassing trade programs. The reason for this has to do with the dynamic nature of pools in comparison to other trades.

Comparing Swimming Pools To Conventional Trades

The way you build a pool changes depending on where you are located. Environmental conditions such as climate and soil conditions change the way you build a pool and the regional availability of materials and skilled labor will determine how it goes together. How does all of this get covered under one trade licensing program?

Further to this you also must consider that there are different ways to build a pool - such as with concrete, fiberglass or with a vinyl liner kit. Most people who work on vinyl liner pools lack the ability to work on concrete pools. Would trade certification require all vinyl pool workers to also learn about concrete pools? While this might actually be a good idea, this would not make sense from a practical standpoint if the worker does not, and will not, work on concrete pools.

The sum total of all of these problems is that today, still, the pool industry is not a legitimate trade despite requiring more knowledge than many fully established trades. The end result to pool owners is that any time that you hire a pool company you should be specifically wary of the technical skill of your hired help. Perhaps one way to combat the problems with trade licensing is to have staged endorsements in the same way that you would have when you become a pilot. You start with a basic, single propeller two passenger plane and get your license. This license however is only good for this one type of plane. You then get additional endorsements on your license by inputting time and passing tests which grants you additional freedoms such as more passengers, more propellers, night & instrumentation ratings, float plane ratings etc.

If the pool industry had something like this then all pool trades would begin with either a construction or service basic designation, and you would work to add endorsements to this such as "vinyl pool installation", "concrete pool installation", "fiberglass pool installation", "automation systems" and "plumbing systems specialist". Perhaps concrete endorsements could be staged to levels one, two and three with level one being basic working abilities, mixing, coloring, where the next levels include more advanced skills and processes such as tile setting, exposed aggregate, natural stone applications, casting and shotcrete.

When I was active as a contractor in this industry this is what I wanted to see. Any system that would allow you to actually be able to verify minimum competency would have made it much easier for me, and much harder for the fly-by-night companies who had very little actual experience. More importantly it would have improved the end user experience in the same way that has happened with other trades - improved shopping confidence and a reduction in the number of horror stories that you hear about bad contracting experiences.

Swimming Pool Steve

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