Code Alert (II)

As regular readers of this blog may remember, a few weeks back I made mention that I had begun taking a contractor licensing course. In Massachusetts, where I live, many trades are required to be licensed in order to perform most aspects of construction work. Electricians and plumbers are licensed, as are masons, crane operators, demolition supervisors, and building contractors, to list a few that come to mind. If it can be licensed, you can bet that Massachusetts will license it! This is a state positively in love with inspections and licenses. Things are very highly regulated here – and I come from Canada, which is supposed to be a quasi-socialistic worker’s paradise (according to some US politician’s accounts), so I guess this must be just like home. I have to take my truck, for example, every year for a state inspection, whereas in British Columbia, living rurally, I did not have to go for inspections, ever.

Massachusetts is unique in this regard in comparison to the surrounding states of the New England area. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Live-free or Die New Hampshire, and Maine have no licensing requirements for construction contracting. In those states, a contractor only has to register his business with the state, and pay into a form of insurance fund against claims.In some of those states and towns therein, they don’t even really have building code regulations or inspectors.

Massachusetts requires the same registering and payment into the insurance fund as those surrounding states, and on top of that a contractor who wishes to engage in any significant form of building work needs to obtain a license. If one doesn’t obtain the license, then the only work a contractor could legally perform is that of basic home improvement tasks.

The contracting license is obtained by taking a timed exam. The subject of the exam covers the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration code (OSHA), the International Energy Conservation (IECC) code, and the Architectural Access code (for code regulations concerning the access of wheelchairs into buildings of all kinds). On top of the IRC and IBC code books, I there are also a slew of amendments unique to Massachusetts, and these require you annotate the main code books and are most careful when looking up certain things that you check to see if there is a state amendment which might affect the answer you’re after.

For $650 I obtained the current versions of all of the aforementioned code books, and took a 7 session course to prepare for the exam. While it would be possible to take the exam without taking a course, all  I could say is good luck to that! There’s a lot of material to cover, and just learning how to find things in the various code books, including which code book to look in, takes quite a while to learn. The class I took met on Monday nights and typically lasted 3~3.5 hours. Then we had homework to take back with us, and this often took 3~5 hours to complete. I finished the course a couple of weeks back, and let me tell you by the end of it all I had pored through all those code books so many times I was sick of it! I must say that I learned a great deal in the process, and thought it was definitely worthwhile.

This week I sat the state exam. I should note that students taking this year’s exam are guinea pigs of a sort in that they have made the exam significantly harder this fall than in previous versions. It used to be the case that the exam consisted of 3 hours and 60 questions, all open book. Our lucky group gets to take 75 questions, in the same 3 hours. Our course instructor had no idea why the exam was being made harder, and that it wasn’t as if the pass rate statewide was 100% or that people were saying the test was easy. Far from it. There are courses for exam preparation being run in various locations in the state, and all of use took a practice exam on the 6th class. According to our instructor, our group was one of the few in which a significant percentage of the class (3 of the 8 people) were able to actually get through all the questions in the 3 hour time limit. Many other classes apparently had students reaching only as far as 65 out of the 75 questions. The pass line for the exam is 70%, so you need 54 questions correct out of the 75. If you only make it to 65 questions in the allotted time, that makes for a tough situation.

It seems like the pass rate for people taking the new exam version is likely to drop this time around, so if that happens I wonder what the testing people (Prometric, Inc.) will do in response to that. “Oops!”

Anyway, I was one of the three in my group who did complete and pass the practice exam, so I felt like my chances were good going into the real thing.  I paid another $100 to take the exam, and drove about and hour and a half to Worcester Massachusetts to the Prometric test center Monday this week. I was the first in my study group to tackle the exam. I guess that makes me the guinea pig for the guinea pigs. I wanted to take it while the study was fresh in my mind.

You sit the exam at a computer and have to go through a security check at the test center very much akin to the airport. You can’t wear a watch or other jewelry, carry a wallet or even a case for your pocket calculator, all because of the possibility the test maker may have a hidden camera concealed in  those sort of items. You get your photo taken, and that photo is then printed onto your test form. They actually wand you for metallic objects, weapons, etc.,  before you can go into the testing room. There were also waivers to be signed of course. There’s a 5 minute break in the middle of the 3 hour exam, in which you can leave the testing room. Upon re-entry, they wand you again!

In the course I took I was told that we would cover 80% of the questions we would likely see on the actual exam, however I found that only about 40% of the questions were familiar. It took me the full three hours to complete the exam, finishing with but one minute to spare. There were a 4 or 5 questions in the exam for which I simply could not locate an answer in the code books and had to make an educated guess. I was a bit surprised with how hard the exam was actually. Exam over, I packed up my books and went out into the proctor’s room to await my result. If you pass, they only tell you that you passed, and don’t tell you your actual score. If you don’t pass however, they tell you which questions you got wrong. Curious way to do it.

Anyhow, I passed! Whew! So glad I don’t have to look anything up in those code books for a while, let me tell you. Next I have to send my exam result form to the state, along with, you guessed it, another $150, so I can receive the actual license, which is good for 2 or 3 years. I am now licensed as an ‘unrestricted’ contractor, which means I can work on 1- and 2-family houses, along with commercial jobs up to 35,000 cubic feet in size. I will still need to obtain my Massachusetts registration as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC), and pay into the insurance fund, which should soak up another $400 or so. When in doubt, pay the government some more money.

I’m hoping that having crossed this hurdle I will have an easier time obtaining carpentry work here in Massachusetts, and even if it doesn’t make as much of a difference as I might hope in terms of securing jobs, I feel the process has been an educational one and that’s always a plus in my books, if you’ll excuse the lousy pun. To many potential clients, to see that the contractor is ‘licensed and insured’ is reassuring – if not a requirement from their insurer.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way. I’m working on a small bit of joinery work at the moment and will be sharing some pictures of that in the next few posts.

4 thoughts on “Code Alert (II)

  1. Good going, Chris. My son in Boulder, Colorado, just had to take a mandatory three hour exam to secure his employment as a Wildlife
    Technician for the county. It also was pretty tough. Some folks were taking it for the fourth time and still failing.

    As one who never did well at such moments I admire you successful test takers. Here's to a good work load coming your way.

  2. Dale,

    many thanks and I hope you'll enjoy the joinery pics coming soon.


    very generous of you – thanks! I am hoping it eventually leads to more work.


    good to hear from you! Yah, French traditional carpentry is pretty far removed from the building code books. Hope to see more posts from you on your blog soon.


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