Ranking the Occupations

License to Work

Breadth of Licensure

As shown in Table 1, seven of the 102 occupations studied are licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia:  pest control applicator, vegetation pesticide handler, cosmetologist, EMT, truck driver, school bus driver and city bus driver.  Another eight occupations are licensed in 40 to 50 states.  Thus, the vast majority of these occupations are licensed in fewer than 40 states, and five are licensed in only one state each:  florist, forest worker, fire sprinkler system tester, conveyor operator and non-contractor pipelayer.  On average, the occupations on this list are licensed in about 22 states.

Burdens of Licensure

To measure the burdens these licensing laws impose, we gathered the specific requirements for each occupation in each state.  As noted, we collected only the five most common requirements:  fees, education/experience, examinations, minimum grade level and minimum age.  

Throughout the report, we list the requirements in their original form—dollars, number of exams, grade level and age—except for education and experience.  Unlike the others, education and experience requirements differ across occupations.  Some demand the completion of a minimum number of classroom hours.  Others require earning a college degree or finishing a prescribed number of years of training. 

Because we wanted to compare occupations, we converted the education and experience data into a common measure—number of days.  (See the methods appendix for details.)  Education and experience requirements typically oblige aspirants to devote their time to training and/or apprenticeship rather than to practicing their chosen occupation.  Thus, number of days gives an estimate of how long in calendar days someone is shut out of the occupation to which they aspire while fulfilling education and experience requirements for licensure.

Table 3 provides the average requirements for all 102 occupations in the states that license them.  Note that because these are averages, minimum grade level and age may appear odd.  No state has a minimum age of three; more typical is 16, 18 or 21, but states with no age requirements will bring down the average.

Table 3 also ranks occupations from most to least burdensome.  To do so, we combined the various average requirements into a single “burden score,” while weighting the measures to reflect the fact that, for example, education and training requirements are more burdensome than fees.  (See the methods appendix for details.)  Note that our rankings of occupations do not reflect any judgment about whether the burdens placed on occupational aspirants are appropriate; rather, they simply compare average burdens across occupations to determine which occupations are easier or more difficult to enter.

Interior designer tops the list as the most difficult occupation to enter in the states where it is licensed.  Although licensed in only three states and D.C., the requirements are onerous.  Aspiring designers must pass a national exam, pay an average of $364 in fees and devote an average of almost 2,200 days—six years—to a combination of education and apprenticeship before they can begin work. 

As Table 3 shows, another three occupations require, on average, more than three years of experience in addition to fees ranging from $103 to $443, one to two exams and minimum age requirements.  Twenty-nine occupations require one to three years education and training, while another 32 require three months to one year.  In 79 of the occupations, at least one exam is required.

On average, the occupational licenses on our list require paying $209, passing one exam and completing more than 275 days, or about nine months, of education and training. 

Breadth and Burden Combined

Table 4 provides a national perspective that combines measures of the burden and breadth of licensure for lower-income workers.  To do so, we simply multiplied the burden scores used in Table 3 by the number of states that license each occupation, as listed in Table 1.  The occupations that top this ranking are those with onerous burdens and widespread licensing, and as shown in Table 4, 15 occupations fell into the top tier as those most widely and onerously licensed.

To appreciate the difference between the rankings in Tables 3 and 4, note that interior designer has the most burdensome entry requirements (Table 3), but ranks as the 78th most widely and onerously licensed occupation (Table 4).  That is because it is licensed in only four states.  By contrast, EMT has the 67th most burdensome entry requirements, but because it is licensed in all states, it ranks as the 12th most widely and onerously licensed occupation.  Factoring in the number of licensed states has a significant effect on the ranking of occupations.

To more closely examine the combined ranking of occupations, we broke the list into tiers, as shown in Table 4.  The tiers reflect how far above or below average an occupation is for its combined score of number of licensed states and licensing burden.  Occupations in the second tier are more widely and onerously licensed than average, while those in the top tier are substantially more so (more than one standard deviation greater in combined score).  Likewise, occupations in the third tier are somewhat less widely and onerously licensed than average, while Tier 4 occupations are substantially less so.

The 15 occupations in Tier 1 are all licensed in more than two-thirds of states and include those who style hair, drive buses and trucks, control pests and weeds and clean and style fingernails.  As shown in Table 5, to enter the 15 occupations in Tier 1 requires, on average, $142 in fees, 464 days and two exams.

Nearly every cosmetology-related field falls in Tier 1—cosmetologist, barber, manicurist and skin care specialist.  These occupations are licensed in all or nearly all states and face fairly difficult entry requirements of two exams and about three months to more than a year of education and training.  

Preschool teacher and athletic trainer top the list of most widely and onerously licensed occupations (Table 4), as they are licensed in 49 and 46 states, respectively, and cost would-be workers four years or more in education and experience.  City and school bus drivers make the top tier because they are universally licensed and require averages of five and six exams.  Other universally licensed occupations are also in Tier 1—EMT, truck driver, pest control applicator and vegetation pesticide handler.  Veterinary technologists fall into Tier 1 because they are licensed in 37 states and must complete nearly two years of education and training, on average.

Twenty-nine occupations fall into Tier 2, and it takes an average of $254 in fees, 10 months of education and training and one exam to break into them.  They are licensed in an average of 31 states.  Tier 2 includes most of the construction trades, as well as mobile home installer, massage therapist, makeup artist, security guard, auctioneer, teacher assistant and optician.

A number of Tier 2 occupations impose education and experience requirements that are significantly above average, including security alarm installer (535 days), fire alarm installer (486), midwife (700) and optician (710), as well as all of the construction trades in the tier.  A handful of Tier 2 occupations have minimal requirements but are widely licensed.

Tier 3 includes 42 occupations, several of which are onerously but not widely licensed.  Social and human services assistant, for example, has the fourth most burdensome entry requirements at $200 in fees, about three-and-one-half years of experience and one exam, on average.  But because it is licensed in only seven states, the occupation is in Tier 3.  Interior designer, the most burdensome occupation to enter, likewise falls in Tier 3.  Several other occupations in Tier 3 impose above-average requirements but are not widely licensed, such as landscape contractor, tree trimmer and HVAC contractor (residential).

The 16 occupations in Tier 4 are the least onerously and widely licensed, and yet, as with Tier 3, several of them face substantial barriers in the states where they are licensed, including home entertainment installer, log scaler, cross-connection survey inspector, dietetic technician, psychiatric aide and conveyor operator.  These occupations fall into Tier 4 largely because they are licensed in so few states—an average of two for the tier.

The number of states that license an occupation plays a large role in where it falls among the tiers.  This highlights a key problem with occupational licensing—mobility.  Those who seek to work in Tier 1 or 2 occupations already face steep burdens imposed by one state, but if they choose to move to another state, they likely face a second dose of burdens should their new state not grant licensure reciprocity.  Evidence from studies on this additional type of burden indicates the effects are real—licensure requirements significantly reduce migration between states, as individuals licensed for an occupation in a given state choose not to relocate rather than undertake the burdensome licensure process a second time.13

13Kleiner, M. M., Gay, R. S., & Greene, K. (1982a). Barriers to labor migration: The case of occupational licensing. Industrial Relations, 21(3), 383-391; Kleiner, M. M., Gay, R. S., & Greene, K. (1982b). Licensing, migration, and earnings: Some empirical insights. Policy Studies Review, 1(3), 102-111.