Joe The Unlicensed Plumber

In discussing the news that “Joe the Plumber” is not, in fact, a licensed plumber, Matthew Yglesias points out the obvious:

Which to me once again raises the issue of whether or not it really serves the public interest to have so many occupational licensing rules. Like most people, if I needed to hire a plumber, I’d probably look for a recommendation. I don’t have any real confidence that these licensing schemes are tracking quality in any meaningful way, just preventing a certain number of people from earning a living and raising the general cost of plumbing services for everyone else.

He’ll get no arguments from me. I can think of very few professions that should be subject to licensure, and even those professions I only support some variant of a licensing scheme simply because the damages risked from fraud are much more substantial than can really be remedied by a court (e.g. If someone claims to be a stylist but gives you a lousy haircut, there’s not much harm. If someone claims to be a doctor and ends up killing you because he doesn’t actually know anything about medicine, there’s a lot.) Plumbers, interior designers, and hair stylists simply don’t fall into that category.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. RW Rogers says:

    According to a report quoted by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution yesterday, “29 percent of the workforce was required to hold an occupational license from a government agency” in 2006.

  2. Richard Gardner says:

    Don’t forget the nail ladies. I’ll accept a health card (Hep & typhoid test) from all food handlers which isn’t quite a license. I’ve been thinking of getting a alcohol server permit (4 hour class) so I can volunteer for the bar at charity events (usually a shortage of folks with the card for that, not that I can make a mixed drink – but I know beer and wine).

    Locally the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) is pushing an initiative to mandate standards for ALL “health care providers” = only union members, including in the home. Most of the non-governmental organizations that work in this area are heavily against it as their volunteers wouldn’t qualify. I had a shill for the union on my doorstep today promoting this.

    And as I understand it the plumber in question works for a plumbing firm, so he doesn’t need his own license (in that state).

  3. just me says:

    I know in our state they pushed hard for a licensing program for anyone who worked in any type of construction trade-including things like painting and finish carpentry (jobs that require skill, but neither would cause serious structural damage to your home if they screwed up).

    Of course the kicker was that there wasn’t any training involved to get them-it was simply a requirement to pay a state fee each year and they would send you your license. I think the program was intended to keep track of who was working in the state more than indicate they had any level of skill.

    This type of licensing generally is supported by unions, because it makes it harder for the little guy to operate, and is really just a way for the state to collect a little more money.

    Most construction trade jobs really are apprenticeship programs, where you work along side somebody who knows what they are doing until you are able to do the work yourself. I think the licensing requirements there are mostly a desire to collect a little money.

  4. rodney dill says:

    No major argument, but I don’t know that I’d classify Plumbers with hairstylists as being benign. A bad Plumber can pretty much destroy your house with bad plumbing. If its just changing faucet then its pretty harmless, but plumbers have a broad range of jobs. Plumber would be more the category of electrician.

  5. just me says:

    Thing is you can have a bad plumber with a license and a good plumber without one. There is a licensed plumber in our area that is awful-my husband wouldn’t hire him to install a faucet much less plumb anything.

    I think it depends on what is required in the state for the license, but in general licensing requirements are really more about collecting fees from the guys doing the work rather than indicating they do quality work.

    However, in construction trades plumbing and electrical seem to be the two places that licensing makes sense, mostly because fixing anything done incorrectly is much more difficult once all the finish work is completed.

    The rule really with any type of work you have done, getting references and checking them is probably more important than checking on whether or not they have a license.

  6. markm says:

    Along those lines…I keep thinking that in order to vote you should have to be licensed or at least pull a permit….ah well.

  7. lunacy says:

    I don’t know about all occupations but in plumbers and electricians, the license is evidence that you passed a test of building code requirements. A journeyman license proves a smaller portion of building code and a master plumber, much more so. And obviously, this knowledge is more pertinent when laying new pipe than repairing old pipe.

    Generally, I’m not an advocate for having gov’t interference. But if you hire a person to, say, add the drain for a new bathroom or add a new receptacle in the kitchen, you’d hope that the guy you hired would know about vent stacks or the number of receptacle that can go on a circuit.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Alex, do you know what plumbers do? Some of the things they’re responsible for can kill you. lunacy, above, is right.

    Licensing isn’t a problem. Quotas or other limitations on the number of licenses issued is the problem.

  9. Plumbers also often play with gas lines… which most assuredly can kill ya if done wrong.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    So then do these gimps who tax my punk ass into the poor house and others into the donkey stable need a license?

    oh and Richard Gardner can you sign some of my magic cards?

  11. sam says:

    A friend of mine who’s a plumber once told me the apprentice requirements were not all that difficult:

    Hot’s on the left.
    Shit flows downhill.
    Payday’s on Friday.

  12. markm says:

    Oddly enough, to build your own home you don’t need a builders license, to wire or install plumbing into your newly built home you don’t need a license, etc.. Just need a permit so some clown can do an inspection.

  13. tom p says:

    Hot’s on the left.
    Shit flows downhill.
    Payday’s on Friday.

    Sam, you forgot “Don’t chew your fingernails”.

  14. tom p says:

    On the more serious side, as others have noted, there are very good reasons for plumbers(pipefitters) and electicians to be licensed, namely death by carbon monoxide or fire. It is expected that the other trades will be kept in line by inspections. This is all controlled thru the permitting process.

    Once while helping a buddy upgrade his kitchen, I found evidence of an old electrical fire buried in a soffitt. The previous owner had just respliced the undersized/overloaded wires back together and buried it. The more I uncovered, the worse it got. When I told them they had to get Lic. elec. to fix it all, they balked at the cost. They finally relented, when I told them their lives were at stake and that I would have nothing further to do with it unless they did.

    In my particular neck of the woods of MO, there is no building code enforcement. As such, I would never buy an existing structure.

  15. Steve Plunk says:

    markm touched upon an important fact. Regardless of who did the work it is almost always inspected by a local government agency. There are plenty of times licensed plumbers have to redo work and there are times a helper might actually do the work right the first time.

    This is not the way to discredit Joe. The Obama campaign should ease up and realize above all else Joe is a working man trying to make a living.

  16. tom p says:

    This is not the way to discredit Joe. The Obama campaign should ease up and realize above all else Joe is a working man trying to make a living.

    Steve, I haven’t heard anything from the Obama campaign. What I have heard is a feeding frenzy from the media… Brilliantly skewered by John Stewart last night.

  17. just me says:

    Steve, I haven’t heard anything from the Obama campaign.

    Obama and Biden have both attacked the McCain campaign for using what Obama told Joe-implying that Joe couldn’t be a plumber because no plumbers make 250k a year.

    Except they both ignore the fact that Joe didn’t say he was making that much, but that he wanted to buy a business that might be bringing in that much.

    Whether Joe has a license or doesn’t have a license, whether he has a lien on his home or doesn’t have a lien doesn’t matter-because he asked his question with regards to what he wanted to do and what that would mean tax wise and Obama’s answer was that they needed to think about the little guy and spread the wealth around.

    I also haven’t heard Obama or Biden tell the minions to lay off the man.

  18. John the REAL Plumber says:

    I think you are all wrong. Plumbers are essential to civilization. You all take the plumbers for granted. Without us you’d all be drinking contaminated water and throwing buckets of waste into the streets. Society cannot exist with out the plumbers. Trust me, not everyone can just do plumbing. A small mistake could contaminate the water supply of a town or neighborhood. A small mistake could leave you coming home to a swam with all of your belongings ruined because an UN-LICENSED handyman took a shortcut, I see it everyday.