Licensing is a sacred cow to the PHC industry, but comes with unintended consequences.

PHC contractors in my home state of Illinois reacted as if touched by a live wire recently when legislation appeared in the state senate to require only licensed electricians to make repairs or installations of any equipment using electrical power. This would encompass furnaces, boilers, electric water heaters and other equipment traditionally within the scope of plumbing and heating firms.

People in our industry generally support the intent of the legislation, which was to establish electrical licensing, and the wording appears to have been an inadvertent miscue rather than a power play by electricians. At last report the language was being revised. Nonetheless, this incident serves as a reminder that licensing laws often bring with them a host of unintended consequences.

Licensing is a sacred cow to the PHC industry. No issue gets our industry’s political activists more worked up. In general, I share their sentiments. Licensing is appropriate for work that routinely involves the potential for electrocution, explosions, asphyxiation and other health and safety hazards. It’s ridiculous to find jurisdictions in this country where you have to be licensed to give hairdos and manicures but not to engage in pipe trades work. A system of licensing-permits-inspections protects the public and benefits the trade.

Be that as it may, the harsh reality is that most licensing laws aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Their basic intent is to assure a minimal level of competency, and most fulfill that goal okay. However, any law is only as good as its enforcement, and licensing enforcement around the country tends to range from laughable to nonexistent.

The knee-jerk solution is to clamor for more inspectors and agency staff, but that’s way too simplistic. Truth is, you can never hire enough people to inspect every job, just as you can’t put a cop on every street corner. The real problem with our licensing systems is not a lack of firepower, but of imagination.

Bureaucratic Backwaters

Most licensing agencies are bureaucratic backwaters. Their employees may be dedicated and want to do a good job, but they have only enough resources to keep honest people honest.

That is, they fixate on enforcing regulations against the people most inclined to abide by them. Most duly licensed contractors pay their fees, pull permits and set up inspections as required. Because they are diligent professionals, their jobs tend to be trouble free or with trivial compliance issues.

Yet, it is these jobs and these contractors that show up on the regulatory radar screen and thus attract 90 percent of enforcement efforts. Most licensed contractors can bend your ear for hours about being hassled by inspectors over picayune code interpretations.

Meantime, Joe Jackleg goes merrily about his business little concerned about being caught and called to account. If you’re unlicensed, you’re invisible. An unlicensed hack who never pulls a permit never gets inspected. On the rare occasion when he might get caught, the ultimate sanction, getting one’s license revoked, is totally irrelevant!

For a licensing system to be meaningful, the regulators need to turn things around and target 90 percent of their efforts against the folks who flout the law. This means involving the public, as well as encouraging licensed tradesmen to blow the whistle when they know of unlicensed counterparts doing work.

A few contractor regulatory agencies have taken this approach. Many years ago I wrote an article for this magazine about the Florida state contractor board, which mounted a publicity campaign aimed at getting consumers to report unlicensed contractors. I don’t know whether the program continues, but it was a noble effort aimed at cracking down on those most in need of scrutiny.

Such efforts require more funds than most regulatory agencies have available, although a little lobbying and ingenuity could go a long way to make up for revenue shortfalls. There is free advertising to be exploited in the form of public service announcements, and plenty of horse-trading opportunities for those dedicated enough to pursue them.

Like all bureaucracies, regulatory agencies have a strong instinct toward self-preservation. If they cannot marshal the resources to do the job effectively, they nonetheless will fight to the death for the right to squander smaller amounts of money on ineffectual programs.

Yet, laws that are unenforced are worse than no laws at all, because they engender disrespect for the law. Where licensing laws are routinely circumvented with little threat of penalty, it might well be argued that those jurisdictions are better off with no licensing at all. At least that way the conscientious contractors would have a level playing field with those who don’t give a hoot.