California’s action serves as a model for licensing boards everywhere.

You won’t often find in this space praise for government bureaucrats, but let’s give credit where it’s due. Late last July, California’s Contractors State License Board (CSLB) mounted an undercover sting operation in conjunction with San Diego law enforcement agencies and the California Department of Insurance that nabbed 13 violators of the state’s home improvement licensing laws. Four HVAC contractors and one plumbing contractor were among them. Bravo.

Sure, a cynic could point out that the busted tradespeople represent only a miniscule percentage of unlicensed contractors operating in the state or even in the San Diego area. Yet by publicizing the sting to both the trade press and general news media, the CSLB’s action makes it reverberate far beyond the individuals who got caught. Publicity causes all unlicensed contractors to look over their shoulders. This is the type of activity that licensing boards ought to be doing more of, along with publicity campaigns that inform home and building owners about the dangers of using unlicensed tradespeople and how to turn them in.

Unlicensed operators typically do not carry workers’ compensation and professional liability insurance. Owners may be held liable if a worker is hurt on their property and left without financial recourse if something goes wrong with the project. Most property owners are totally in the dark about such things in their quest to find someone who works cheap. Some jurisdictions have mounted public awareness advertising campaigns to educate the pubic about the potentially costly consequences of using unlicensed tradespeople. Often these advertisements are considered public service announcements and are run for free by local media outlets.

I’ve also seen ads in some states notifying homeowners they are under no legal obligation to pay for work performed by unlicensed people. If this tactic became widespread, we’d likely see a steep decline in unlicensed work.

Sting operations are more complex undertakings that require considerable resources in both money and manpower. That’s why they are so rare. But it’s a better use of licensing agency resources than what most of them do.

Which amounts mostly to a lot of paper shuffling and harassment of licensed contractors who fail to dot an “i” or cross a “t.” Skewed enforcement priorities come about because contractors who play by the rules are easy to identify and scrutinize.

If you qualify for a license, pay the fee, pull required permits and call for inspections, it’s easy to keep track of your activities and nitpick your jobs. It takes much more effort to uncover illegal work taking place and mete out penalties sufficient to discourage it. In many jurisdictions the most severe penalty for trade malfeasance is loss of license, but what does that matter to someone who never bothers to get one?

Licensing bureaucrats and their trade allies constantly complain about lack of funds to hire enough inspectors. However, the real problem with most licensing agencies is not so much a lack of firepower as aim. Just as communities can’t afford to put a cop on every street corner, there will never be enough money to inspect every jobsite, and funding shortages will only get worse given the dire state of public finances throughout the country. Instead of crying poverty, licensing authorities need to be more imaginative in finding ways to get the biggest bang for their bucks. Public awareness campaigns and sting operations can achieve more than a couple of extra inspectors in protecting the public and knocking unlicensed tradespeople out of their comfort zone.

Laws that go 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, those jurisdictions might be 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.

Let’s also remind ourselves that the ranks of inspectors could be increased by tens of thousands at no additional cost if duly licensed contractors would take it upon themselves to self-police their trades. Legitimate contractors and their crews are plugged into the local grapevine and often know of work that’s taking place on the sly by people without proper credentials.

There’s a time and a place for “mind your own business,” but this isn’t one of them. Take a deep breath and start blowing that whistle. Your industry, your business and public health and safety will all be better off because of it.