There are various ways to determine if a person is qualified to do a task or trade. Licensing through the state is probably one of the most common and is often required. For specialty trades, California has always been one of the more challenging places to get licensed in and—in an ironic way—one of the easiest.

Licensing is through a state agency called the Contractors State License Board. I am very familiar with the process. I have done it twice for the same license with about a 42 year separation. I first took and passed the exams for lath and plastering in 1980. Then in 2014, I wanted to re-instate my license and had to re-apply by submitting all new paperwork and pass the required exams again.

Both the exams in 1980 and 2014 were in two parts. The first part was the business section. This part was the same for all contractors regardless of the trade specialty. You had to read a balance sheet and understand profit-and-loss with gross and net profit differences. The test required you to understand overhead calculations and various other business issues. (One question I remembered had not changed in 40 years. The most common cause for new contractors to fail in business was not a lack of trade knowledge, but a failure to understand business practices. I am not so sure that it should be the correct answer today).

The second part was specific to the craft you were applying to get your license for. The test in 1980 was more formidable than it was today. My reasoning is the 1980 test was from the 1960s, with several questions on interior lath and plastering. The current exam is strictly about exterior cement plaster. The current exam is undoubtedly more relevant and I congratulate the state for getting it right.

After passing the test, I was pleasantly surprised to learn I got my old license back—including the number. The number is relevant, as you can tell how long a contractor has been around. Today, the state uses seven-digit numbers as more than 1 million licenses have been issued. My license number is back in the four hundred thousand range. Unfortunately, it also tells people I am old. Regardless, I can remember taking and passing the test in 1980, and it meant a lot to me.

A Tough Test

The test today is more relevant, but not a walk in the park. This can have some people wondering how obviously unqualified people can get that license. There are other ways to get it done. One is through a three-day crash course. These schools essentially drill the questions and answers into you without any desire to provide a knowledge base. The state works hard to combat this with multiple tests. Another option is through the RME process. In short, you can be listed on someone else’s license and then qualify to get your own or take over that license. I felt a little pride that I did mine the way it was meant to be: learn the trade.

The best qualifying I have seen for contractors is the National Terrazzo Association for North America lot. This group requires applying contractors to undergo a two-year process, taking classes with site inspections of recent workmanship. Membership is still not guaranteed.

The board of directors’ review the application, verifying applicants have a proven history with solid references. After two years, all information is again reviewed, as well as the physical site inspection of recent projects. The final decision is by the board of directors, who are experienced experts in the trade. The criteria to be admitted is fairly simple: does the applicant install quality terrazzo and leave their customers satisfied? It is not easy to get in. The board picks apart quality issues and often want explanations if they note any errors or imperfections.

Not too long ago, a newly indoctrinated contractor member approached me at a national convention. I assumed he was going to continue to lecture me on how unfair and strict the application process was; instead, he started with an apology. He said he now realized the two-year process and those stringent rules are a real value. He would get jobs because he was a qualified member and the low bidder was not. While architects often put qualification requirements into specifications, most tend to be pretty much ignored. But not with this group. The process of acceptance—combined with third-party inspection availability—explains why architects mandate and hold to association membership. This is common with universities and other institutions. The lesson is that if it is easy for all, it has less value. Verifying qualifications is a keystone to a thriving industry.