Getting a contractor’s license with or without experience can be a confusing process. Becoming a licensed contractor often requires registering with multiple state and local agencies and passing trade examinations.
But don’t worry, if you’re thinking about becoming a contractor or subcontractor, we’re here to help you get a contractor license.
Common Licensed Contractor Requirements
If you are a contractor planning on bidding on jobs over $500, many states will require you to apply for and carry a license to do so, either at a state or local level, regardless of experience.
While each state and city has different requirements for getting a contractor’s license, here is a guide to contractor license requirements found in most states:
- Proof of workers’ compensation insurance
- Proof of general liability insurance
- Be either 18 or 21 years old
- Submit criminal background checks
- Surety bond
- Federal Tax ID or SSN
- Financial statements
- Register your business with the state
- Pass a Business & Law exam
- Pass a trade or certifying exam
- Sometimes, acquire work experience
Specialty Construction Trade Requirements
The experience requirement for contractors is usually determined by trade. Many states do not require a general contractor to have any hands-on experience or even a license.
And then, some states like California require contractors to demonstrate at least four years of journey-level experience in their trade, either as a general contractor or specific tradesman.
Construction trades that usually have required experience and have to pass trade exams are:
Qualified Party Verification
To meet the experience requirement for a contractor license, you must be verified by a responsible party deemed qualified to do so.
Parties certifying applicants’ qualifying experience must have firsthand knowledge of their work, typically in the form of having worked with them in the past.
Some examples of qualified parties include:
- Another journeyman who worked with the applicant
- The homeowner of a house the applicant helped build
- Past or present employee
- Past or present employer
- Union representative
- Building inspector
Unfortunately, many of those just getting started as contractors do not have the required experience to get licensed off the bat.
Can I get a contractor’s license with no experience?
You can only get a contractor’s license or registration with no experience in certain states. For example, Oregon does not require experience for a residential endorsement contractor license.
For those contractors hoping to start a business in a state that requires previous experience, there are some alternative options available.
Using California as an example, the following paths can help a new contractor get licensed with no experience.
Experience Requirements Alternatives
Receiving a Grandfathered Contractor License
In some states, the licensing authority allows established contractors to pass their licenses to new contractors upon retirement. While this allowance was intended to help family businesses pass responsibility through generations of ownership seamlessly, this technique is also occasionally used to simplify the transition process of acquisitions and takeovers.
It’s important to note that just because you are allowed to inherit the license of an established contractor without the pre-requisite experience required to get your own license, you will still need to pass the licensing exam in the state you are planning on doing business.
Working with a Responsible Managing Officer or Responsible Managing Employee
Another way for an experienced contractor to start working without enough qualifying experience for a license is with the help of a responsible managing officer (RMO) or responsible managing employee (RME). Essentially, the law in California and some other states, allows a new contractor to “borrow” the license of another licensed contractor to maintain compliance.
By hiring a responsible managing officer as a project manager or employing a responsible managing employee, new contractors can operate as if they had a license.
Licensing Board Waiver
While there are never guarantees on the availability of this option and typically no concrete guidelines in place to determine eligibility, some state licensing boards have been known to waive experience requirements for applicants.
Because this is determined on a case-by-case basis, there is no reliable way to determine if you qualify for a waiver outside of speaking to your local licensing authority. That said, many state licensing boards have been known to grant these waivers in the past, and for many, this may represent the best chance of getting a contractor’s license with no experience.
Do I have contracting experience?
If you have taken some construction or engineering classes or have worked some odd jobs, you might have more qualifying experience than you think.
California, for example, will grant up to three years’ credit toward the four-year experience requirement for academic work at accredited universities or apprenticeship training programs. Other states offer similar education substitutions.
While this still won’t get you a license, it is a start for meeting the experience requirements.
Military Active Duty and Veterans
You can receive experience credit for any work or training you completed while serving in the military. Most states that accept military work experience will require a copy of your military orders and discharge information.
Earn Money While Earning Experience
If all else fails, one final option for getting a contractor’s license with no experience is to work your way up to qualifying. While this may not be a viable solution for a contractor looking to bid on jobs that require a license right away, you can still make a living while building up the experience required to qualify.
From working under a licensed general contractor or as a subcontractor to working in an apprenticeship, there are many ways to keep earning while you’re gaining experience.
Start as a Handyman
Certain states do not require contractor licenses or experience for handymen. By picking up odd jobs and offering handyman services, you can start gaining experience to meet state and local requirements.
Be sure to document your work as a handyman to submit when you apply for your contractor license.
Work for a General Contractor
States usually allow licensed contractors to hire employees who do not have a license as long as the employees are directly supervised. By working under a licensed contractor, you can start gaining the required experience to get your own license.
For those wanting to be licensed in a specific trade, such as electrical, plumbing or HVAC, most states have tiered licenses with different experience requirements for each license.
Most inexperienced contractors looking to gain experience for licensing will start by working as an apprentice. Working under a skilled general contractor in an apprenticeship can help someone new to the contracting business learn a skilled trade and the ins and outs of the business.
An apprenticeship is the most common way to work as an unlicensed contractor with no experience.
For those who are already skilled in their trade and able to work on a project with little to no supervision, the best way to get qualifying experience for licensing is often by working as a “journeyman.” Essentially an artisan contractor who lacks the experience necessary to lead a project, a journeyman can earn the experience to get a contractor’s license by working on projects led by another licensed contractor.
After a few years of working as a journeyman, some people working toward a contractor’s license transition into working as a foreman or supervisor. While working as a foreman is not typically required to qualify for getting a contractor’s license, the responsibilities of both roles are similar. The experience can help prepare for the transition to a licensed contractor down the line.
Many states require a master contractor certification and exam for the contractor experience requirements to bid on jobs and work independently.
Contractor Licensing Laws by State
Fortunately for new contractors, some states don’t require contractors to bid on projects under a specific total cost (including materials and labor). Other states only require contractors to register and have no formal certification process in place to stop a new business from bidding on jobs right away.
The current contractor licensing requirements for each state can be found here.
Suppose you are getting serious about getting a contractor’s license and still have questions not answered in this guide. In that case, the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies is a valuable resource.
As always, the construction insurance specialists at Higginbotham are also standing by to help answer your questions. We will work with you to understand the unique needs of your contracting or other construction business and help you get what you need to protect your business, from insurance to bonds to risk management services.