Guilds in America

Over in The American Spectator Andrew Wilford had a few things to say about how state licensing restricts trade. In fact, he, like me, calls it the guild system. We do that because that is exactly what it is. Here’s some of his.

Occupational licensing remains one of the most effective methods of restricting employment in the country. Experts have estimated the economic costs of excessively strict occupational licensing around the country at $203 billion. Burdensome licensing rules function as a way for entrenched professionals to restrict competition in their industry—licensing rules have resulted in 2.8 million less Americans employed. A study out of Alabama shows how effectively these anti-competitive professionals lobby for excessively restrictive licensing rules to keep the number of new licenses issued at a minimum.

If anything, he underestimates. And don’t think that it is only a problem for hair-braiders and barbers and such. It permeates construction, while not doing anything at all to improve either quality or price.

Let’s revisit something I wrote about it back towards the end of 2012.

Guilds, Licensing, Inspections, and Code, Oh My

Guilds and Licensing

You’ve often heard me say that trade licensing is like nothing so much as the medieval guilds. Here’s why.

You decide you want to be an electrician, so you go get a job with one or you go to a community college, now you can get your apprentice card, you lucky boy or girl. Either way, once you’re on the job site, you’ll carry parts, run a broom, maybe bend some conduit, dig a trench, the stupid stuff that young people always end up doing. That’s fine, it’s been that way forever, I did it, and so did my dad.

You keep doing that for a few years (it varies with school or pure apprenticeship) and you’re qualified to take the journeyman test. They claim it has some electrical knowledge on it but, for the most part, it’s a code test, which is important, but not the be all-end all you think. Let’s say you pass, many don’t, 5 or times isn’t uncommon. I think it’s a ridiculously stupid test and open book at that, but it’s not up to me. Now you’re a journeyman.

As a journeyman you can supervise three apprentices (these are all Nebraska examples) in theory you could be in charge of wiring the new skyscraper in Omaha, as a 25-year-old journeyman. (Don’t worry, you won’t be, usually, that job will have 50 or so electricians on it). But most likely you’ll be in charge of a crew, and as you learn what you’re doing your responsibilities will increase. It’s not all that bad a system.

The next step and many never take it, is to take the contractor’s test, it’s a little more difficult but not much. If you pass and buy insurance you can be an electrical contractor. Woo-Hoo!

Say you decide to go out on your own, which is really the only point to that license, you might be a good electrician, many are barely OK and lazy to boot in my opinion. But here are some things you need to know:

  • How do you do a fair estimate?
  • How do you figure out how much of which material to use? [Most house plans leave all that up to you, and if they’re three or more years old, they’ll need revision for the current code cycle]
  • How do you figure a fair return? Not that you’re going to get it on residential work.
  • How does accounting work?
  • What do you have to do to comply with OSHA?
  • What is and when do you have to apply NFPA 70E or NFPA 101
  • What is the UL White book, and why does it matter.

My point is, there’s a lot to being a contractor that a journeyman rarely sees.

Oh, did I mention that your present contractor has to sign off on you taking the test? That’s where the guild thing comes in. It’s nothing less in my mind than using the government in restraint of fair trade.


Here inspection is done by the State, and they’re pretty good, knowledgeable, fair, and consistent. Just about all you can ask, really. Or is it? See the thing is, their job is to enforce the code, period. And as we’ll talk about in the next section that introduces some problems.

What I would like to see is this, when you buy a home, if you want insurance (and most mortgages require it) why couldn’t the insurance companies require that electrical, plumbing and whatnot be brought up to code, using their own or contract inspectors, which would mean that every once in a while homes would get inspected and not the messes that some so-called handymen leave behind them.

Nothing new about this either. When I was young, nearly every factory in America was insured by Factory Mutual. Factory Mutual not only required compliance with a very strict code, that covered lots of things, they even had their own labs for rating products, and if your product didn’t have an F-M label it couldn’t be used. But if you complied, the insurance was pretty cheap. Why? Because the losses were low. You know, the free market at work.

Codes, Codes, and more Codes


For the most part, electrical work is covered by the National Electric Code (NEC, NFPA 70), it’s a good code. Like it plainly states it is not a design manual, although if I want the job, I’m usually not going to go very far beyond it. If wired in accordance with the code, your house will be safe, it may be adequate and convenient, or it may not.

But there are problems. If your house was wired in the 50s or before, it may still have a 60A main, you will find it inadequate. If I remember the code started requiring 100A in the early 60s as it still does. So if you have that 60A service, usually it will have two sets of cartridge fuses labeled main and range, which is what they are normally used for, in addition, it will have four of the old plug fuses, we call them Edison base, same as a light bulb.

Here’s the kicker, say you blow a fuse, and you call me, and by some miracle I can come right over, if that panel shows any sign of overloading, like too big a fuse for the wire size, or pennies behind the fuse, or even if it’s hot (and I’ve burned myself on a few). I can do one of several things, I can replace all the fuses with the proper size Type S fuse and its adapter so that you can’t overfuse, although you’ll be very limited on load, I can replace the panel, or I can refuse to work on it. That’s it.

The best option for Joe Homeowner is to replace it. That’s problematical too though. In the current code, I have to protect just about every circuit in the house with either a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) or a combination type Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) instead of using a regular circuit breaker (I can’t even buy a fusible panel anymore).

GFCIs work fine here, no problem, it’s one of the very few ways I can replace a two wire outlet as well. AFCIs can be an entirely different kettle of fish. Invariably if I try to put one on the old cable with the woven covering, it won’t work, it could be something as minor as a staple driven too tight or something. If I’m in that spot, from the get-go, I’m going to tell you, you have to rewire your house. You really do need to anyway, but here we are talking about it on a cold winter’s night while we watch your pipes freeze.

OK, that’s settled, right? Oh, you want an estimate or a bid. OK, that better for both of us, anyway. It’s gonna cost you about $5000 dollars, more or less.


Because times have changed, in 1965 or so we went to grounded outlets, first with a small conductor and then with a full size one, it was a very good idea.

In about 1980 we started required bathrooms and kitchens to have GFCIs essentially wherever we are within six feet of water, and in the basement, garage, and outdoors. Again a good idea.

Now we require AFCIs on almost anything else in a dwelling unit. It’s not a bad idea, they detect an arc in the wiring and shut off the circuit.

Not least of the problems is that instead of about $5 for a circuit breaker, these (and GFCIs) are about $50. They also change some of our methods of wiring, and yes the new ways are more expensive in both time and material but, it can’t be helped.

Now the fun begins. Under the code, certain things are required.

  • An outside light, wall switch-controlled at each entrance
  • An outside outlet, as described above
  • Outlets, not more than 12 feet apart in all rooms of dwelling units, including any wall more than 18 inches long, except some halls and stairwells.
  • Wall switch controlled luminaires, or in some cases outlets, in all rooms, controlled at each entrance.
  • Bathroom circuit, 20A GFCI cannot serve anything else (sometimes it can serve another bathroom)
  • Kitchen, 20A GFCI, outlets every 24 inches over the countertop (not excluding that fancy island), two circuits required minimum.
  • There are limits as to how many outlets can be on a circuit 7 for a 15A circuit if I recall.
  • Any appliance that has a nameplate that calls for a separate circuit, has to have one. Invariably dishwashers, garbage disposers, freezers, furnaces, and icemakers do
  • A laundry outlet that serves nothing else.
  • Usually, I’ll spec a circuit for the refrigerator because they don’t always play nice on GFCIs or AFCIs and I hate call-backs.

So where are we, somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen or more circuits, electric dryer add 2, electric water heater add 2 more, air conditioning add 2 more. If I remember, and I’m writing this from memory, the biggest 100A box I can buy has about 15-20 spaces in it, and it’s very poor design not to leave room for expansion, so you’re looking at a 200A service. In truth, I haven’t recommended anything else in 20 years, and I’ll bet those that insisted on saving that 50 or so bucks regret it now.

Did I mention that I have to use tamper-resistant outlets too? It’s not a big thing, only about a dollar more per outlet.

So after you cry for a while (I don’t blame you for it either) you say OK and pay the deposit which will be in the neighborhood of $2500. Now we can pull the permit and get started.

Everything I’ve mentioned above is required by code. I and the inspector have no choice. What we used to be able to do is to stage it, we could figure out the whole job, change the panel now, and rewire later, and occasionally it still can happen. Oh, don’t forget to schedule the drywall guy and painters, cause we’re going to damage your walls.

But, here’s the problem, remember where we started this story, when I walked in, I burned my hand on your panel. Let’s say you just got a job that pays say $10 dollars an hour, and your house payment is $300 a month. How are you going to be able to pay me? The short answer is, you can’t. I know it, you know it, and the inspector knows it too. But we’re all stuck.

Thing is, a competent electrician can do other things to make it reasonably safe, without all that drama. But the way the code is written we can’t.

That’s one of the reasons I like the system I outlined above, when you’re buying the house, you’ve got options, maybe the seller will help, in the worst case maybe you can include it in your mortgage,  instead of trying to do it right now when you have a problem.

Basically, we’ve made code compliance so expensive that we are leaving very dangerous situations in homes because no can afford to fix them. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in their quest to make electricity safe for a two-year-old, have priced fixing actual real-world hazards out of reach of the average homeowner.

Now mind, electricity can be dangerous, and complying with the code is important. But the roadblocks we place in the way of somebody wanting to do the work are ridiculous.

When I lived in Indiana, which had no state license (still doesn’t, I think) the work I did still had to pass inspection, and that is proper.

The real problem is contained right here, to get the license you need your employer to sign off on it. If you’re a decent electrician, why exactly would he? It’s directly against his interest to do so unless he’s your daddy. Usually, he won’t, and so you’re stuck. The other thing is, the ECs control the commission, which can take your license back for any or no reason.

A system designed to use the government to hurt the consumer, and that’s pretty close to a working definition of a guild. Something they told me in school is one of the things that stifled progress in the middle ages. I’m sure it did because it does now.


Nebraska Repeals Strict Licensing Laws for Hair Braiders

160318_NebraskaHairBraiding_Johnson-1250x650Better late than never, I suppose.

A cosmetology license, required for hair braiding? Really?

Here: from the Daily Signal.

Just two weeks ago, Nebraskans who wanted to make money braiding hair had to undergo 2,100 hours of training to obtain a cosmetology license, which state officials say dedicates little time to natural hair braiding techniques.

But now Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has signed legislation into law that will lift arduous occupational licensing requirements on the state’s hair braiders. […]

She said the government is often “too intrusive” and enacts restrictions that prevent people from earning an honest living. She hopes her bill, which Ricketts signed into law March 9, will empower female professionals to take risks, which she said will help build self-esteem.

“It’s the pursuing of the American Dream,” Fox said. “I think when you start taking risks and accomplishing things, it kind of makes you, the entrepreneur, set the bar higher and try to accomplish more.”

Yes, yes it does. That’s exactly what it does. The opportunity to accomplish something on your own. If you don’t know this 2100 hours is about 52 weeks at 40 hours per week, what we call full time, by the way, all that for hair braiding.

Furth said Nebraska’s legislature should continue to deregulate work in the state, where there is “no serious, proven risk” to public safety.

“One easy way to deregulate is to accept other states’ licenses: If you’re good enough to be a dentist in Iowa, you’re good enough to be a dentist in Nebraska,” he said. “That’s an easy way for a state to attract more skilled workers without being accused of risking public safety.”

via Nebraska Repeals Strict Licensing Laws for Hair Braiders

That I don’t completely agree with. While she’s right, as far as she goes, but she doesn’t go nearly far enough. As most of you know, I’m an electrician, and yes, I’m a pretty good one. And yes, bad electrical work can kill you, and do it quick, by electrocution, by fire, and by other things. But you know what, Nebraska’s licensing system, isn’t really about safety, maybe it was at one time, but now it functions as simply a medieval guild. It exists to prevent other equally good electricians from competing with the ones that have a license. If memory serves, neither Pennsylvania or Indiana have state licenses, although they likely have some sort of inspection regimen. By the way, here you need a state permit to change an outlet, which costs about $50 additional. Yeah, I know!

I’ve written about this before, here, and here, and this too is relevant. Yes, a lot of that has to do with codes, and inspections and such, but it’s still very relevant to the discussion.

Short form is this, having a bloody piece of paper, and having pushed a broom for four years, and having passed a test I could have passed when I was 14 just does not make you a competent electrician, neither does mandated continuing education, which requires that half of the courses you take each biennial period duplicate over and over again. Electrical theory hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years, but what has changed is the material we work with. I spent most of my time in the last few years with single board computers, programmable logic controllers, variable frequency drives, computer networks and sensors, and other things that didn’t exist in 1980. I did not learn that in bogus seminars for licensing requirements, I learned that mostly in the field, by reading, and by taking real seminars that allowed me to do the job.

The code has changed, it’s purpose now is, as near as I can tell to keep an unattended two year child, or a stupid drug addict safe, and like I said in one of the linked articles, it forces us to refuse to work on really hazardous installations, unless the client can afford the tariff.

Are there solutions? Sure, but we’re not looking for them, because the manufacturers want to sell higher priced material, and the authority having jurisdiction, who by the way, is not your local inspector, have a need to, at all costs, protect their jobs, for which, frankly, I don’t blame them at all.

And yes, all of this has much to do with why I retired or was that got too tired to deal with it.

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