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Contractor Licensing Gets a Bad Rap

August 20, 2010
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Is contractor licensing a good thing for the public or just a restriction on the number of contractors? When I started writing for this publication about 10 years ago, I agreed to leave the political subjects to the real writers. However, as a contractor, I have been involved in this licensing question for quite some time now, and thought it would be good to obtain your viewpoint on this issue. Here in St. Louis County, licensing of commercial contractors and their individual employees has been in effect since 2000. During that period of licensing, everyone involved would agree that the licensing ordinance has been administered fairly. No class of contractors has been discriminated against which was the original concern. Prior to its original passage, non-union contractors fought strongly against the ordinance feeling that it was an attempt by the union contractors to control who could obtain a license. However, since its passage, the administration has been fair enough that the non-union contractors are among the most ardent supporters of residential licensing. This is definitely not a union-nonunion issue.

Those opposing the licensing legislation argue that it is merely an attempt by contractors in the industry to limit the entry of new individuals and new contractors coming into the industry. I’m curious to know if those in areas which have had licensing for a long period of time, have, in fact, found that fewer contractors and individuals enter the industry. The requirements to obtain a journeyman license are relatively simple. An individual must show proof of 7,500 hours of experience in his field. This may be in the form of a certified apprentice program or merely actual work in the field. Then the individual must pass an exam on his particular discipline. The test is prepared and given locally and the License Board watches carefully any tendencies regarding passes/fails. That is all that is required. Certainly there is not much in those requirements which would be restrictive.

A major part of the incentive to put in place residential licensing at this time is due to high unemployment and layoffs in many fields, especially the automotive industry. We have found that when there is a mass layoff in the automotive field (a large Ford plant and a large Chrysler plant have both recently been closed in this area), a number of those workers who have pick-up trucks decide to be HVAC technicians and/or contractors. Many have little, if any, experience in our industry. What they aren’t aware of is that the equipment in the HVAC industry has changed significantly in the last few years. The sophistication of furnaces, especially, with draft-induced fans, dual heat exchangers, etc., is drastically different than furnaces of just a few years ago. Shouldn’t the person servicing or installing these pieces of equipment have some experience on how to size a flue, how to handle furnace condensate drainage, etc?

These are the arguments which we made to our St. Louis County Council. In the end, the legislation was passed. However, the two dissenting Council persons made passionate pleas that licensing was just a method for those already in the industry to keep others from gaining entry. In the commercial field we have certainly not found that to be the case. I’m interested in what the experience has been in other parts of the country. We honestly feel we are serving the public properly by requiring that an individual have at least some (7,500 hours) experience and be able to pass a test on his discipline. I know I would want the person installing a flue in my home to know how to do it properly. While requiring a license doesn’t guarantee that an individual is completely qualified to perform his duties, we feel it does give the public some level of security knowing he has at least that minimum of experience and knowledge.
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