About half of U.S. states require electrician licensing and many other states are in the process of mandating licensing. It's a complicated, controversial process. In this article, Helen Vozenilek, an electrician for the city and county of San Francisco, explores California's licensing conundrums.

The Golden State may soon open up its golden gate to electrician state licensing. California, home to some 70,000-plus electricians, is taking it first halting steps toward licensing these workers. And halting is the operative word. While voluntary certification will commence in early 2002, it will take at least another three years until that certification becomes mandatory.

“It's a work in progress,” said Bryan Goyette, regulations coordinator of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS), the governmental agency charged with developing the state certification regulations. “What is true today may change next week. And who knows about the week after that.”

California Governor Gray Davis signed AB 931 into law in October 1999. Several public hearings and reams of written comments later, AB 931 stands ready to implement. The bill calls on the DAS, a division of the state's Department of Industrial Relations, to “establish and validate minimum standards for the competency and training of electricians,” and to “establish fees necessary to implement those requirements and establish and adopt regulations for enforcement purposes.” Only electricians working under C-10 (license classification) electrical contractors and on voltages greater than 100 volt-amps will be covered by the certification.

Although certification is voluntary under AB 931, the belief is that many electricians will rush to take the test and get the certification and the added legitimacy it may give them. “If California homeowners see an advertisement for an electrician that's state-certified and one that's not, they're going to pick the state-certified one. Even if it's going to run them a few more dollars,” Goyette said. “It's to the electrician's advantage to take the test.”

While the test has already been developed, numerous other issues remain to be resolved. DAS is in the process of finding a test administrator and in determining how often and where the tests will be given. With 156,000 square miles to cover in the third largest state in the union, the testing must accessible to all Californians. Once these decisions are made, a primary concern remains on how to ensure the integrity of the test. This is a high priority for Goyette.

“We don't want to have a situation like you find in other states where you can send off money and get copies of the licensing tests.” Such a situation does exist in the some of the state's contractor courses, where, for a fee, aspiring contractors have access to previous tests. Goyette hopes that the new electronic licensing tests will help reduce this danger.

FIVE CLASSES

AB 931 has five certification classifications: General Electrician, Residential Electrician, Voice Data Video Technician, Fire/Life Safety Technician or Non-Residential Lighting Technician. General electricians must be able to document 8,000 hours of on-the-job training with industrial and commercial experience, while residential electricians need 5,400 documented hours. The certification will cost $175 and will be renewable every three years for an additional $100. Thirty-six hours of continuing education credits are required in that three-year period. The licensing fees are supposed to cover costs of test administration, certification issuance, validation of experience and monitoring of compliance.

Because the certification is voluntary under AB 931, enforcement would consist of verifying certification rather than monitoring job sites as would be indicated by mandatory licensing. The proposed penalty for someone falsely claiming certification is a five-year ban from taking the test. Reciprocity, as is common in many other states, will not be granted. However, experience gained in another state can be used to qualify an electrician to sit for the California test. The DAS will have the power to publish the names of those certified.

Another legislative bill, AB 921, was introduced at the same time as the electrician certification program. This bill calls for the establishment of electrician apprenticeship standards and provides for the random audit of existing apprenticeship programs to prove compliance with these newly established standards. The bill requires that public work projects maintain a certain ratio of journeyman to apprentices and that these apprentices be paid prevailing wage per diem rates.

While the process is in full swing for AB 931, it is in many ways just laying the foundation for another bill, AB 1087, which makes licensing mandatory by Jan. 1, 2005. Introduced in February 2001, AB 1087 went through three hearings before being tabled for the next session. Under the proposed bill, current C-10 contractors would be exempted from taking tests.

Thomas Calderon, a Democratic assembly member from Los Angeles, introduced both AB 931 and AB 1087. The need for the bills is self-evident, he said. “Right now, you can have an electrician working on your house who doesn't have a lick of training. That isn't right, and these bills serve to protect the people of California.”

THE POLITICS OF PROGRESS

Self-evident or not, the bills have been surrounded by controversy. Mike Mowrey, IBEW International vice-president from the Ninth District that includes California, admits to being surprised about the length and difficulty of the certification process. At the same time he is philosophical, saying, “Because California is the fifth largest economy in the world, we have to expect that there will be a lot of legislative hurdles and there will be many parties that want their place at the table.” He goes on to call all the resistance to the licensing “ludicrous,” adding, “We license barbers in this state. We can at least require the same of someone installing electrical systems in our homes or public buildings.”

While everyone agrees that certification is a good idea, the disagreements arise quickly around implementation. And things pretty quickly break up into two camps: union and non-union. This despite the fact that the bills prominently state that there shall be “no discrimination against members or non-members of unions.”

Art Carter, IBEW lobbyist for the Ninth District, calls it a “red herring” that somehow this legislation favors unions over non-unions. Merit shops assert that yes, indeed, something fishy is going on, and the three bills, 921, 931 and 1087 are designed to take work from them. Another camp, perhaps more accurately called a pup tent, is that of the training schools and community colleges. Their concern is that their training schools be considered appropriate training grounds.

The issue of work appears to be the primary axis around which the certification controversy swirls. Just how far apart the sides are can be seen in their wildly differing estimates of what should be a “hard fact” i.e. the percentage of electricians in the state who are union. Mowrey of the IBEW sets that percentage at a resounding 45%, while Michael Bishop of the Fair Licensing and Apprenticeship Coalition, FLAC, cuts that number more than in half to 15% to 20% (The state has no official statistics.)

FLAC was founded in April 2000 directly in response to AB 931. First forming in southern California, the group now extends throughout the state and is focused exclusively on the issue of electrician certification. Bishop, executive director of FLAC, supports certification, but feels that the bills are biased towards the unions. He calls the DAS a “union-dominated bureaucracy,” which would have the power to decide what training was allowable and what wasn't. The DAS currently oversees training for 63,000 apprentices, 80% of whom are union.

“From the beginning the IBEW has presented this as a safety campaign. That's a total sham. If you really believe that safety is the main concern, then you should require that everyone take the test,” Bishop said. Both AB 931 and its successor, AB 1087, concern only C-10 electricians. Those working for the utility companies or for federal, state or municipal agencies, as well as maintenance workers and stationery engineers who perform electrical work are exempted. The non-union people see this is as clear evidence of a union drive to take over work. To Goyette the reason is less nefarious. “The industry had to start somewhere, so they targeted the largest group of electricians — the C-10's.” He added that he would not be surprised to find future moves toward licensing for those other categories of workers.

One of the most contentious issues is the DAS claim that the regulations will not negatively impact small businesses. While this is technically true when that licensing is voluntary, once that licensing becomes mandatory, perhaps in 2005, many small shops feel that there will be a definite fiscal impact. “Of course it's going to cost us money,” said Fredric Fierstein, a Berkeley contractor employing five electricians. “And when my overhead goes up because of all these added certification costs, I'm going to have to pass the costs on to the customer. Ultimately, it's the people of California who are going to get screwed.”

CONTRACTOR STORIES

Fierstein, who has worked as a contractor for 20 of his past 30 electrical years, is adamant that the certification is a union-sponsored drive to take away his work. “Look, the unions make their money by how many people they sign up. I make my money by how efficiently I can get a job done.” He said mechanisms are already in place to ensure the safety of his work.

“As a C-10 contractor, my work is insured. If I start making mistakes, no one will insure me. It's as simple as that,” he said.

Fierstein said he is not against certification per se, only what he feels is a union-inspired legislative move that authenticates only union training. He says the certification requirements parallel those of a union-apprenticeship program and aren't appropriate for his employees.

Lori Katz is another small contractor who's uncertain about how the new regulations will affect her crew of six. Katz, who came up through the union in the early 1980s, said, “The upsetting thing is that there are very few training programs available other than the union. And as we well know, up until a few years ago you didn't get in until you were related to someone; it wasn't open to women or minorities or immigrants.” Although the employees of Katz or Fierstein did not go through the state-approved training schools, they would only have to prove enough hours of on-the-job experience and pass the test in order to be certified. And as certified residential electricians, they'd need about two-thirds of the hours of the general electricians.

Phillip Austin, an African-American electrical instructor for the Sacramento Area Electrical Apprenticeship Program, shrugs off this often-expressed concern about the disproportionate effect of the legislation on women and minorities. “A lot of people look at this from an old school of thought about unions — the Jimmy Hoffa old-boy network kind of affair. Thirty years ago I wouldn't have had a job with the IBEW but that was then and now is now.”

In his fourth year of teaching, Austin believes that the kind of training offered by the unions is crucial. He has no problem with non-union apprentice classes as long as those classes teach skills as well as theory. “The people who sell our textbooks sell to both union and non-union. That part's the same. However, it is the application of those textbooks and curriculum that really tells the story — we provide on-the-job training through the union apprenticeships,” Austin said.

Concerns that the licensing process would discriminate against non-English speakers and/or those without a high school diploma have been allayed in the later rewrites of AB 1087. The current version of AB 1087 specifies that the tests be made available in languages other than English, which would help the state's large percentage of Chinese, Latino and Russian contractors. And while a high-school diploma is not required, literacy is a definite requirement for passing the written test.

The type of training approved is a major issue for another group of stakeholders: the community colleges. Lynn Shaw, a chief spokeswoman for that constituency, came up through the union apprenticeship program 20 years ago and believes that she got a great education and training. She also is aware that not everyone wants to or can get in a union or a non-union apprenticeship-training program. Now an educator at Long Beach City College, Shaw has students who work in the trade by the day and attend classes at night. Until the lobbying and intervention of Shaw and others on the legislative bills, community college education would not have been considered valid training. While the final bill is not yet written, Shaw is hopeful that the certification process will be as inclusive as possible. “When considering the model of success,” said the electrician cum educator, “the most important issues are access and support. We have to do everything possible to make sure that as many people as possible have access to these new certification rules.” Shaw estimated that more than 2,000 individuals statewide every year get certification in the electrical industry through the community colleges.

Perhaps the most impartial voice in the union versus non-union battle comes from someone who has played on both sides of the court. Ron Selvaggio is such a person. He is now the human resources director for Helix Electric, a southern California electrical contractor currently ranked 14th largest in the nation. Selvaggio worked for 32 years within the IBEW before moving to the non-union Helix 13 years ago. He has been heavily involved in the work around AB 931 and remains optimistic that the process will treat all electricians fairly.

Selvaggio favors certification but is against putting too much stock in the licensing procedure. “The license will indicate that someone has worked in the field, and that either he has some knowledge of the Code or knows how to take tests. This license will not necessarily indicate that he is a qualified electrician, that he doesn't do shoddy work,” Selvaggio said. The true answer, said Selvaggio, is a practical test where someone can display his or her skills.

But given the vast impracticality of administering such a test to more than 70,000 electricians, it seems certain that, for all its limitations and problems, California will continue with plans to implement the existing bills and will soon join 28 other states in requiring that their electricians be licensed. To stay updated on the latest regulations, check out the DAS Web site at www.dir.ca.gov.


For more information on state licensing, go to page 30 and read Contributing Editor Paul Rosenberg's sidebar, “Say Hello to Renewal Requirements.”

CALIFORNIA STATE LICENSING IN A NUTSHELL

  • AB 931, signed by Governor Gray Davis in October 1999, required the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) to “establish and validate minimum standards for the competency and training of electricians.”

  • The proposed regulations provide that the following topics be covered in the electrician certification examination: tool identification and use, material identification, blueprint and symbol identification, safety, first aid and hand signals, conduit bending, wire pulling, rigging, electrical test instruments, basic wiring installation, basic electrical theory and electrical code.

  • The new law generally applies to employees of C-10 contractors performing electrical installations of 100 volt-amps or more. Existing electricians will not be grandfathered under AB 931 certification.

Source: California Department of Industrial Relations