Do Licensing’s Burdens Make Sense?

This report’s data do more than highlight the breadth and burden of occupational licenses nationwide and show how they have changed over time. The data also provide evidence that many licensing requirements, despite some positive reforms, are too steep or even entirely unnecessary. 

Questionable Licenses

Like the data from the last edition of License to Work, the data from this edition cast doubt on the need for licensing in many occupations. Most of the 102 occupations we study are not licensed universally, as shown in Figure 14, which means workers are safely practicing them in at least one state—and often many more than one—without a government permission slip. Thus, when any occupation is licensed less than universally, it is worth asking whether the states that do license it are doing so unnecessarily. 

Figure 14: Licensing Is Not Universal

Most occupations are unlicensed by at least one state

Particularly suspect are licenses found in one or only a few states. If licensure were truly necessary to protect the public, we would expect to see greater consistency. Yet 22 of the occupations (listed in Figure 15) require licenses in fewer than 10 states, 13 in fewer than five and four in just one state. 

Figure 15: Rarely Licensed Occupations

Twenty-two occupations are licensed by fewer than 10 states

Also highly suspect are licenses that other states have eliminated. If a state has gone to the trouble of delicensing an occupation, states that continue licensing it should reconsider. For instance, Nebraska and Tennessee repealed their locksmith licenses in 2021, 1  yet 12 states continue to license the occupation. Likewise, West Virginia delicensed crane operators effective January 1, 2022. 2  Meanwhile, 16 states still license them. 3  Figure 16 lists 14 such delicensed occupations that continue to be licensed by anywhere from three to 47 states.

Figure 16: Opportunities to Delicense

Since 2017, 14 occupations have been delicensed by at least one state, yet many other states still license the same jobs

Other licenses that are likely unnecessary are ones government studies, prepared by nonpartisan research staff, have recommended against. In a number of states, proposed licenses and other occupational regulations are subject to “sunrise review,” a process intended to give lawmakers objective information about the need—or lack thereof—for new regulations. 

Sunrise reviews inquire into occupational harms, regulations’ costs and benefits, and regulatory alternatives. They typically include a recommendation as to whether the proposed regulation, or any new regulation, is warranted. As a 2022 IJ study of nearly 500 sunrise reviews spanning 15 states and over 200 occupations found, these independent government studies usually recommend against licensure—or any new regulation. 4

Sunrise reviews of proposed licenses for dietitians, for example, overwhelmingly (9 of 10) recommend against licensure. 5 And if sunrise reviews find dietitians do not need licenses, it stands to reason that dietetic technicians, who assist dietitians in the provision of food service and nutritional programs, do not need licenses either. Nevertheless, dietetic technicians’ average licensing requirements rank as more burdensome than those of 87 other occupations, requiring an average of 835 days of education and experience, along with an exam and $176. As Figure 17 illustrates, for several occupations covered in License to Work, the majority of sunrise reviews have not recommended licensure.

Figure 17: Few Government-Issued Reports Recommend Licensing

For 13 occupations in License to Work, the majority of government sunrise reviews have not recommended licensing

Note: Reviews for dietetic technician encompass the broader categories of dieticians, nutritionists and medical nutrition therapists. Athletic trainer excludes two reviews that considered distinct licenses as exemptions from broader ones. Figure excludes other occupations for which distinct licenses were sought, occupations with only one review, and those with similar titles but substantially different definitions or scopes of work.

Perhaps the most suspect are licenses that are both rare and onerous. In the previous edition of License to Work, we highlighted the irrationality of Missouri’s licensing scheme for psychiatric aides. Missouri was the only state to license the occupation, and it did so very onerously, requiring two years of experience in mental health, a high school diploma and a minimum age of 18 years. At the time, these requirements were the 14th most burdensome among the 102 occupations studied. 

Though Missouri eliminated its psychiatric aide license in 2020, 6  a number of rare yet onerous licenses remain on the books. For instance, only four states (Arkansas, California, Colorado and Kansas) license psychiatric technicians, yet those four states require, on average, eight and a half months of specialized coursework. Specific education requirements range from seven months (210 days in Arkansas and Kansas) to nearly a year (357 days in California).

Figure 18 highlights several such rarely but onerously licensed occupations. Perhaps the most striking example is interior designer. Licensed by only two states and the District of Columbia, and recently delicensed by Florida, interior design has been the most burdensome of the 102 occupations going back to the first edition of License to Work. On average, the three states that license the occupation require six years of education and experience, an exam, and $1,492 in fees.

Figure 18: Rarely Licensed, High Burdens

Seven occupations stand out for high average education and experience burdens despite being licensed by few states