For millions of lower-income Americans, state licensing laws make finding work or opening a small business harder and more expensive—if not outright impossible. These laws force would-be workers in fields like barbering, landscaping, interior design and many more to get a government permission slip—an occupational license—before they can legally work. To do so, they often must complete costly training, pass exams, pay fees and more.
Licensing Is Widespread
This third edition of License to Work finds licensing laws like these are widespread: In all, we identified more than 2,700 licenses across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. That’s among a sample of only 102 lower-income occupations. There are many more jobs that require a license.
Licensing Is Burdensome
We found the burdens these licenses impose are steep: nearly a year of required education and experience, at least one exam, and $295 in fees, on average. That’s a lot of time and money spent earning a license instead of earning a living, especially for low-income workers. And that doesn’t include hidden costs like tuition for required schooling.
Questionable Licenses and Licensing Burdens Abound
Licensing laws might be worth it if they improved services or made the public safer, but evidence suggests they often don’t. And we found a lot of questionable licenses and licensing burdens.
But we also found some good news: Since 2017, states have eliminated more licenses than they have created, and nearly 20% of licenses have become less burdensome. Policymakers can open jobs to more Americans and support new businesses by continuing reforms like these. States should:
Repeal needless licenses
Eliminate licenses that are not shown by high-quality evidence to protect public health and safety. Exempt safe services, like many beauty trades, altogether.
Reduce overly steep licensing burdens
Ensure remaining licensing requirements are no steeper than necessary to protect public health and safety. Let consumers decide quality.
Prevent new licenses
Reject new licenses that are not well supported by high-quality evidence or narrowly targeted to protect health and safety. Instead, favor less restrictive alternatives like inspections, registration and certification.
88% of the occupations we studied are unlicensed by at least one state and 14 have been delicensed by at least one state, suggesting these jobs can be done safely without a license elsewhere.
Even most government studies of licensing proposals decline to endorse more licensing, including for 13 occupations we studied.
Many jobs require a lot of training despite posing little risk: 71 occupations in our study require more training than entry-level emergency medical technicians. On average, EMTs need about 36 days’ worth of training versus 342 days for cosmetologists.
Based on 102 lower-income occupations
States ranked by combining number of licenses with average licensing burdens (burden rank); first is worst and 51st is best.
Animals, Agriculture and Outdoors
- Animal Breeder
- Animal Control Officer
- Animal Trainer
- Farm Labor Contractor
- Fisher, Commercial
- Forest Worker
- Log Scaler
- Milk Sampler
- Nursery Worker
- Pest Control Applicator
- Still Machine Setter, Dairy Equipment
- Tree Trimmer
- Vegetation Pesticide Applicator
- Veterinary Technician
- Wildlife Control Operator
Construction and Home Services
- Carpenter/Cabinet Maker Contractor (Commercial)
- Carpenter/Cabinet Maker Contractor (Residential)
- Cement Finishing Contractor (Commercial)
- Cement Finishing Contractor (Residential)
- Crane Operator
- Door Repair Contractor (Commercial)
- Door Repair Contractor (Residential)
- Drywall Installation Contractor (Commercial)
- Drywall Installation Contractor (Residential)
- Earth Driller, Water Well
- Electrical Helper
- Fire Alarm Installer
- Floor Sander Contractor (Commercial)
- Floor Sander Contractor (Residential)
- Glazier Contractor (Commercial)
- Glazier Contractor (Residential)
- Home Entertainment Installer
- HVAC Contractor (Commercial)
- HVAC Contractor (Residential)
- Insulation Contractor (Commercial)
- Insulation Contractor (Residential)
- Interior Designer
- Iron/Steel Contractor (Commercial)
- Iron/Steel Contractor (Residential)
- Landscape Contractor (Commercial)
- Landscape Contractor (Residential)
- Mason Contractor (Commercial)
- Mason Contractor (Residential)
- Mobile Home Installer
- Painting Contractor (Commercial)
- Painting Contractor (Residential)
- Paving Contractor (Commercial)
- Paving Contractor (Residential)
- Pipelayer Contractor
- Security Alarm Installer
- Sheet Metal Contractor, HVAC (Commercial)
- Sheet Metal Contractor, HVAC (Residential)
- Sheet Metal Contractor, Other (Commercial)
- Sheet Metal Contractor, Other (Residential)
- Terrazzo Contractor (Commercial)
- Terrazzo Contractor (Residential)
Entertainment and Hospitality
Personal Care Services
Transportation and Machinery
Check out this report's press release and contact our media team for additional information.
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