Living Smart: Is your electrician qualified?

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

As the nationís economy continues to improve and homeowners tackle more improvement projects, leaders in the electrical industry say a shortage of qualified electricians makes it even more important for homeowners to hire smartly.

"The No. 1 challenge contractors are facing is not the amount of work Ö itís a manpower issue," says Thayer Long, CEO of the Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association representing 3,000 member companies. "Nationwide, there is a growing shortage of electricians in this country ó trained electricians."

With homes becoming smarter with new technology and the growing popularity of LED lighting, Long says itís vital for homeowners to make sure the electrician they hire is properly trained to do the job and holds required trade licensing. But even though the company may be licensed and employ a master electrician, that doesnít mean the person doing an electrical job in your home meets those same standards.

In about half of all states, he says, individuals performing the work are not required to be licensed electricians; even though the company must at least have a licensed electrician on staff who is expected to provide oversight. "Thatís why asking about training is really important," Long says. "You could be in a state that doesnít have (individual) licensing (requirements), and the guy youíre working with learned it on the fly, and youíre really playing with fire."

Licensing regulations vary from state to state and county to county, so homeowners should first learn their local jurisdictionís requirements before hiring an electrician. Then, follow up with the company to understand exactly who will be working on your home and their qualifications. Many counties require a licensed electrician to pull a permit before beginning any work or completing inspections. A reputable company also will require staff to attend regular training courses and stay current on the National Electrical Code, which is amended every three years.

Kent Crook, owner of highly rated Wiremasters Electric in Miami, says he works in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where electrical contractors can send unlicensed workers on jobs provided they have oversight from a licensee.

"In our state, you donít have to have a licensed electrician on every job," he says. "You just have to have a licensed electrician overseeing the job Ö to make sure things are done properly and up to code." He adds that a license holder remains responsible for the work done by employees and is required to make sure they only do work theyíre qualified to handle.

In Minnesota, unlicensed workers need to be directly overseen by a licensed electrician, says Randy Smith, owner of highly rated Randyís Electric in Maple Grove, Minn.

"You need to have a journeymanís license to be on a job by yourself," Smith says. "Sometimes we send apprentice helpers along who are learning and sometimes we donít, but we always send a licensed electrician out to the house."

Crook says responsible electrical contractors take steps to ensure that qualified individuals work on appropriate jobs. "If youíre hanging a fan or fixture, you donít really need a guy who has a license for that," he says. "But if weíre doing a panel change, I feel like we need a licensed guy. We know that what we do isnít a game. If an electrician messes up, a house might burn down. Itís serious."