Contractor licensing in Maine = more useless laws

A word or two today about a somewhat mundane topic, yet a necessary one: contractor licensing.
Recently, Jon Hinck, a local politician in my town of Portland, has chosen to create a bill that was reported in The West End News that “…would create the Maine Home Contractor Licensing Board, which would oversee the licensing and collection of fees. Under the legislation, any contractors and people who perform residential framing, roofing, siding, insulating, window work or chimney work would require licenses. It would also require the adoption of a model building code. The bill would also help make sure that contractors who take money in advance can be found and their customers reimbursed when a job is not completed in a workmanlike and reasonably skilled manner.”

Sounds good, right? Sounds like these thieving darn contractors will finally be controlled, right? Well, lets just take a look into what State Licensing will do to the contractor. First, it will require more money to do contracting work, more money up front to pay for the license, then the bonding, then the contractor liability insurance, then the lawyer fees, on top of the contractors- piles of bills for tools, permits, and transportation. Licensing narrows the players down to who has the money and the ability to deal with regulation and bureaucracy. Why is it that politicians think that more laws are going to insure our safety and security? James Fenn, a student at Brigham Young University, attempted in his thesis dissertation to examine the subject and found that: “Contractor licensing is a form of occupational regulation whose purpose it is to protect the consumer, the contractor and the industry. This is accomplished by minimum guidelines and standards for obtaining a license. It is still difficult, however, to measure the overall effect of licensing on the construction industry because of intangible benefits such as increased confidence and improved reputation. Yet, in order to have a regulatory system that benefits all of society, states must be able to measure how well licensing is serving the intended purpose for licensing.” Visit his thesis at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd708.pdf

As a builder with a Masters Degree in Architecture, I have built homes in states with and without contractor licensing. My opinion is it is more bureaucracy and without effect. From my experience, going through the licensing to be a contractor in the state of Montana it amounts to money, paperwork, and more money to the builder. (Oh, but they do give you a sticker and a badge to show you are a good scout). I did not see a more diligent building code enforcement, but what I did see were more builders with licensing as a credential and its not like these builders were doing a whole lot differently except charging more for their services.

Perhaps one of the more abstract and less discussed topics concerning licensure is how it filters those who do the good work in a negative way. Much like the licensing to become an “Architect,” it exasperates many of those with the more creative talents. Many of those types, and I am one of them, are sick and tired of “the System” of false credentials. What I have found is the types that put up with these bureaucratic hurdles are the types that are good at studying and doing what they are told to do. They are usually not the creative types. This is why so much of the “designed?” and built world today lacks imagination. The designer and builder become rule followers; they get good at complying. This might be fine if it is routine maintenance work, but what if the project involves creative thinking, or original thought?
Please keep in mind a license doesn’t make someone more compliant, it just makes them have to charge more. I wouldn’t support the creation of this law when there is not proof that it will even work. With building code enforcement offices already maxed out and undermanned, it seems unlikely they will be able to assist in enforcing the new contractor license rules. If you want a decent builder, research the field of building and know what you are looking for. It is like going to an auto repairman- show that you know the difference between a spark plug and a radiator hose….that’s empowerment! Good old fashion knowledge.

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