Executive Summary

Millions of Americans in low- and middle-income jobs like barber, landscape contractor, interior designer and many others need a government permission slip—known as an occupational license—to work. Securing one can take months or even years of training, one or more exams, hefty fees, and more. Proponents claim these licenses are necessary to protect consumers from unsafe or otherwise poor service. Yet most evidence indicates licenses do no such thing and instead impose heavy costs on workers, consumers, and the economy and society at large. 

This third edition of License to Work provides an updated snapshot of licensing’s extent and burdens by cataloging state licensing requirements for 102 lower-income occupations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It also provides, for the first time, a report on licensing requirements in Puerto Rico. In another first, this edition analyzes changes in licensing requirements since 2017. Key findings include:

Licensing Remains Widespread and Burdensome

  • In all, this edition catalogs 2,749 licenses across the 50 states and the District of Columbia and our sample of 102 lower-income occupations.
  • On average, the requirements to secure these licenses remain steep: 362 days lost to education and experience, at least one exam, and $295 in fees. 
  • Interior designer remains the most difficult occupation to enter, though it is licensed by only two states and the District of Columbia. 
  • Among universally licensed occupations, barber and cosmetologist continue, despite reforms, to rank as some of the most difficult to enter.
  • Louisiana still licenses the most occupations of any state, 77 of 102. Hawaii’s licenses still rank as the nation’s most burdensome, while Nevada is the most widely and onerously licensed state.

Modest Reforms Have Removed and Reduced Some Licensing Barriers

  • Between 2017 and 2022, states created 16 new licenses across the 102 occupations but eliminated 26. While small, this net reduction of 10 licenses represents a reversal of the prior five-year trend.
  • Nearly 20% of licenses became less burdensome, including sizable reductions to mandatory education and experience—the most burdensome type of licensing requirement. As a result, average days lost to education and experience requirements fell by 22 days across our sample.
  • These burden reductions clustered in the contractor trades, particularly in Utah and Arkansas, as well as barbering and beauty occupations. 

Questionable Licenses and Licensing Burdens Abound

  • Just 12% of the 102 occupations are licensed universally, which means workers are likely practicing the other 88% safely in at least one state—and often many more than one—without a license. 
  • Despite having been delicensed by at least one state, 14 occupations continue to be licensed somewhere in the United States—by between three and 47 states. 
  • Licensing burdens do not always appear aligned with occupational risks: Workers in 71 occupations, including all the barbering and beauty occupations we study, face greater average burdens than entry-level emergency medical technicians.
  • At least 13 occupations in our sample remain licensed in at least one state even though a majority of government studies have declined to endorse their licensure.

In short, there remains much room—and need—for licensing reform nationwide. Accordingly, this edition proposes five reform strategies for policymakers interested in slashing licensing red tape: (1) repealing and reducing licensing barriers, (2) preventing new licenses, (3) paring back broad “scopes of practice,” (4) removing barriers to mobility, and (5) easing licensure—and reentry—for people with criminal records. 

Occupational licensing burdens remain widespread and burdensome, albeit a little less so than a few years ago. Five years after the second edition of License to Work, and 10 years after the first, this third edition makes the case, and provides a blueprint, for continuing the reform trajectory.