As vice president of Fisk Electric Co., Steve Thorwegen's plate is usually pretty full. Management, administrative, and strategic planning tasks comprise a big part of his day. But for several hours each month Thorwegen finds himself playing the role of a student of sorts — as he takes exams, bones up on various versions of electrical codes, and completes related paperwork on the company's behalf. “When I retire, I could probably make that my part-time occupation,” he quips.
A stretch? Probably. But it's no joke that Fisk and many other large electrical contractors across the country must commit a growing amount of time and human resources just to obtain the necessary licenses it takes to work across state, city, or county lines. “We have 14 separate state licenses, and I can probably spend two to four days a month prepping for tests, completing take-home exams, and obtaining continuing education credits,” says Thorwegen, a master electrician who's the company's point person on licensing. “I've been taking tests since 1984 for the company, and I've also accumulated over 46 municipal electrical contractor licenses in Texas alone over the years so we could do work in those areas. And each year they had to be renewed.”
Part of that ongoing burden, however, was eased two years ago, when Texas instituted a state electrical contractor-licensing program. With that in place, many cities and counties in the state have scrapped all or part of their local licensing requirements, opting instead to honor the single state license — much to the pleasure of contractors like Fisk.
Branching out. While an isolated development, Texas' move may offer proof that at least some change may slowly be coming to a confounding patchwork system of licensing rules, regulations, and requirements that electrical contractors across the country must navigate. As more contractors spread their wings on a national basis, calls for strengthening state licensing, greater license reciprocity between states and municipalities, and even a blanket national licensing program are growing and — in some cases — being heeded. A national licensing program is perhaps the boldest licensing reform plan being bandied about. Although much of the discussion amounts to little more than perennial talk on the fringes of the contracting industry, some serious efforts appear to be taking shape.
For instance, a coalition of licensing bodies and construction industry-related groups — the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies (NASCLA) — is spearheading an effort to develop standardized national contractor licensing exams. The group is currently shepherding the design of a standard technical exam for general contractors that all states would honor. If that effort proves successful, NASCLA may turn its attention to developing national exams for subcontractors. Electrical subs are high on the list of trades that could be next.
Reciprocity agreements between neighboring states are the blueprint for a national NEC-based exam concept, says Robbie Brooks, a NASCLA official and executive director of the North Carolina Electrical Contractor Board, which issues licenses in that state. Those arrangements, under which groups of states agree to honor each other's licenses and exam procedures, have generally proven workable, reducing the burden on contractors and licensing agencies. “Reciprocity has been in place in our region for many years, and more states have been added over time to the point where eight states are involved,” Brooks says. “Our goal in designing a national program would be to develop one exam based on standards that every state would accept and to create an avenue for contractors to move more freely from state to state — something we're seeing more of today in the electrical contracting industry.”
Still, there's no certainty there will be a groundswell of electrical contracting industry support for a national exam concept. Brooks concedes that “demand needs to be greater than we're seeing today” among contractors for NASCLA to take on a national electrical exam project. For his part, Brooks says the state electrical board he manages supports the idea. “Where we go next with this will be based on where we get the most interest,” he says.
Moving forward. For contractors, discussion of national licensing is hardly a new development. Many note debate over the pros and cons of the concept has been going on for years. Yet there's general agreement that anything that would allow contractors to move between states more freely and with the least amount of hassle holds some allure.
Jack Mueck, senior vice president of the industrial division of MJ Electric, an Iron Mountain, Mich.-based contractor that's part of the Infrasource group of companies, says saving the time and expense involved in maintaining some 20 state licenses — many of which are based on similar exams and continuing education requirements — would be beneficial. “It's getting even tougher to navigate partly because the tests are becoming more technical as the electrical contracting industry becomes more complex,” he says. “It can be an expensive proposition for a company like us to send people to the different states, spend several days there, and take continuing education classes. The complexity of complying with licensing requirements affects all of us in the contracting industry.”
Though MJ Electric holds numerous state licenses, Mueck says there have been cases where the company has passed up potential work in a new state because of the time it takes to secure a license. “By the time you go through the filing process, have your contracting credentials checked, take classes to prep for the test, and then take the test and have it graded and processed, six to eight months can elapse.”
Another challenge that adds complexity to the task of securing different state licenses is a lack of uniformity with respect to the National Electrical Code (NEC).
Code quandaries. Even though there can be a great deal of overlap with respect to exams and licensing requirements from state to state, the converse can also be true — not all states base their exams and licensing criteria on the same version of the NEC. Fisk's Thorwegen says that lack of standardization means contractors often must focus on learning versions of the Code that may be long outdated, adding a confusing layer of complexity that makes little sense from a safety standpoint. “You can't assume that every state has adopted the latest edition,” he says. “They can be one or two Code books behind in some cases.”
The fact that different states base licensing on different NEC versions illustrates the challenge of moving to a national license, says Sarina Snow, educational director with Mike Holt Enterprises, a Sunrise, Fla., firm that provides Code training programs to the electrical contracting industry. “Some states are still working off of the 1999, 1996, and even 1993 Code, while other states don't even have a licensing program,” Snow says. “So it would be a real project to get a unified national licensing program. You can't just say you're going to implement a program; there first has to be agreement on standards. So many states don't agree — and so much of licensing is political — I don't think it can really happen.”
While a national licensing program may be a work in progress that could yet take years to attain, there are signs that states also see the problems posed by a lack of standardization. Efforts in Texas and other states to enact new electrical contractor licensing programs or bolster the authority of existing ones are taking shape.
States set precedents. After years of wrangling over the issue, the Texas legislature in 2003 enacted a state-licensing program affecting both electricians and electrical contractors. Consisting of 10 categories — from master to journeyman to contractors — the program was conceived as a way to bring more uniformity to a maze of local licensing rules and regulations throughout the state. Patrick Shaughnessy, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, says the program has produced a more streamlined licensing procedure in the state. “Prior to the law's enactment, licensing was done on a municipal or a regional level, and the drawback was that an electrician working from city to city in the state would have to secure and maintain dozens of licenses,” he says. “State licensing essentially relieved them of that responsibility because many municipalities have abolished local electrical licensing requirements and bought into the state program, though some may still require that fees be paid.”
In Iowa, meanwhile, a bill that would implement statewide licensing of journeymen and master-level electricians and contractors is wending its way through the state legislature. Steve Chesley, executive manager of the Quad Cities chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association in Davenport, Iowa, says his members generally support the bill because it would establish uniformity and eliminate the need to secure multiple licenses. Additionally, a state licensing law with more teeth could address the growing problem of unqualified contractors moving in and out of municipalities. “There's more of a concern now along the lines of safety because a lack of a strict licensing program in the state has opened the door to more electricians who are not qualified,” he says. “We have a lot of unemployment in the Quad Cities now because of the exit of manufacturing concerns, and that's leading to a lot more electricians looking for work. But just because they're electricians doesn't mean they're qualified to go out and start an electrical contracting business.”
Chesley isn't sure where the Iowa bill is headed; two years ago, he says, one came close to being passed but was derailed by municipalities that feared losing control over permits, inspections, and a loss of licensing revenue. The current version of the bill addresses some of those concerns by preserving the ability of localities to maintain some local requirements, such as with respect to continuing education. “From our standpoint, this bill would be good for our members, even though some members are not keen on it because they see it as just more bureaucracy,” he says. “I've tried to convince them that by avoiding having to take separate tests, the bill would work to their benefit.”
Sorting things out. Indeed, electrical contractors historically have had a love-hate relationship with licensing. On the one hand, the process can often be the epitome of bureaucratic red tape. On the other, it's a means to help ensure that the industry stays as free as possible of unqualified contractors — and that safety and competency remain paramount.
Given the passions that licensing arouses — both within the contracting industry and among the licensing bodies — it's perhaps a leap of faith that greater standardization and harmonization can be achieved. But contractors like Thorwegen say the concept of a national license, while remote now, could happen someday. “I thought it was a monumental hurdle to get state licensing in Texas, but they went with it,” he says. “Maybe once we get all states to adopt state licensing programs and enact more reciprocal arrangements with each other, the next logical step would be a national program. It may not be in my lifetime, but I think it could be achieved.”
Zind is a freelance writer based in Prairie Village, Kan.
Sidebar: Pitfalls Can Await Roving Contractors
Amid talk of national electrical contractor licensing, contractors may relish the idea of licensing authorities being stripped of some of their power. But support for that idea and others to streamline the licensing process may rest on more practical grounds: More contractors are getting wanderlust, and they want and need to move more freely. “More contractors seem to be working a little farther these days,” says Bob Baird, a vice president with Independent Electrical Contractors in Alexandria, Va. “While some work in one city or county and don't care about branching out, others may hold licenses in 30 or more different jurisdictions.”
While the reasons are numerous — ranging from spotty economic vitality across the country to more work being done with larger clients with operations in multiple regions — electrical contractors that move around face a host of logistical challenges, many of which relate to the process of “getting legal.”
Therein lies the rub. Failure to fully understand the nuances of licensing and regulatory laws from area to area can pose problems. For instance, to get around licensing requirements, some contractors craft joint ventures with contractors licensed in states in which they may land work but aren't necessarily licensed.
Gerard Ittig, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in construction law, says case law has called the legality of such joint ventures into question. “Joint ventures used to be a savior for out-of-state contractors, but often those don't work any more,” he says.
As evidence, he points to a case in Idaho in which a joint venture involving two contractors — one of which was headquartered out-of-state and not licensed in the state — was found to have violated state law requiring any and all contractors working on public works projects in the state to be licensed. As a result, the parties were left without legal recourse in a contractual dispute. “If you're looking to work in another state it pays to study the statutes,” Ittig says. “You can't assume you're going to get all you need to know from talking with city or state officials.”
Another legal wrinkle in some states can trip up contractors. Ittig notes that in Louisiana and Mississippi contractors aren't allowed to even bid on jobs if they don't have a current state license. “The unwary contractor can be trapped in cases where out-of-state contractors come in and quickly bid on a job and plan to secure a license afterward,” Ittig says. “Contracts that are awarded to such contractors can be deemed unenforceable because they violated state law.”
Sidebar: Electrical Licensing Measure Fails in One New York County
In April, legislators in Dutchess County, N.Y. voted on a measure asking the state to permit their county to create a law requiring licensing for electricians. While the measure passed by a margin of 16 to 9, it was held up by the county executive, William Steinhaus, who refused to sign off on the proposal. If the measure had received just one more vote, the state could have moved forward on the issue despite Steinhaus’ objections.
Dutchess County legislator William McCabe (D-District 13), who is in favor of a county licensing law, says the arguments made by those against the licensing law often center around the feared negative impact a licensing law would have on small businesses, competition, and prices, “which doesn’t prove to be true elsewhere, but that’s what they say,” McCabe says. “I think [a licensing law] is in the interest of the consumers, so that if I go to the telephone book and hire an electrical contractor, I know that they have experience and training and credentials.”
The proposed county electrical licensing law required a yearly $350 licensing fee and the creation of an independent electrical licensing board to implement and enforce the law. Initially, a grandfather clause would have allowed electricians that can prove at least 11 years of experience to become licensed without taking an exam. Others would need to acquire experience under a master electrician for six or seven years before taking the licensing exam.
McCabe says the idea of licensing electricians has been debated in the county for 10 to 12 years, and has gradually gained a majority of support in the legislature. “Those of us who support it feel strongly about it, so it will come up again either next year or when there’s a newly elected legislature or a newly elected county executive,” he says. — By Jaclyn Alcantara, associate editor