Senior Director of Strategic Research
Senior Director of Strategic Research
Editor and Producer, Short Circuit
The Irrationalities of Occupational Licensing
The licensing of lower-income occupations is both widespread and onerous—but the data in this report also show that it is, in many cases, irrational and arbitrary.
On July 21, 2011, a federal court in Louisiana, a Tier 1 state, struck down a requirement that casket sellers be licensed as funeral directors. The court recognized that the state had “no rational basis” for imposing the burden of a funeral director’s license—which includes apprenticing at a licensed funeral home, mastering irrelevant skills and passing a funeral industry test—on those who merely sell empty boxes (i.e., caskets).
As the court declared, “The licensing scheme is not rationally related to public health and safety concerns….[I]t is detrimental to the welfare of the consumers and does not protect the health and safety of the public.”14 Instead, the court found, “The provisions simply protect a well-organized industry that seeks to maintain a strict hold on this business.”15 The court’s conclusion could be said of numerous occupations in this report.
To License or Not to License
The need to license any number of the occupations in this sample defies common sense. A short list would include interior designers, shampooers, florists, upholsterers, home entertainment installers, funeral attendants, auctioneers and interpreters for the deaf.
Most of these occupations are licensed in just a handful of states; interpreters are licensed in only 16 states, while auctioneers are licensed in 33. If, as licensure proponents often claim, a license is required to protect the public health and safety, one would expect more consistency. For example, only five states require licenses for shampooers, but it is highly unlikely that conditions in those five states are any different from those in the 45 states and District of Columbia where shampooers are not licensed.
Similarly, as noted, only three states and the District of Columbia license interior designers. It is rather implausible that interior design poses a health and safety risk in these four jurisdictions that is absent everywhere else (let alone a risk severe enough to warrant requiring would-be designers to complete six years of education and training). In fact, multiple state commissions that have studied the issue have concluded that there is simply no need to license interior designers and have recommended against proposed licensing schemes accordingly.16
On average, the 102 occupations we studied are licensed in just 22 states—fewer than half. Only 15 occupations are licensed in 40 states or more. Even allowing for variation in states that may change the nature or popularity of some occupations across borders, this lack of consistency is suspect. For the vast majority of these licensed occupations, many people are practicing elsewhere without government permission and apparently without widespread harm.
Consider the same point from the perspective of the states. All of the 102 occupations studied are licensed somewhere. Louisiana, Arizona and California license more than 60 of the 102 occupations in this report, while Oklahoma, Colorado, Indiana, South Dakota, Kentucky, Vermont and Wyoming license fewer than 30. The average state licenses 43. Clearly, many states are doing just fine by leaving their citizens free to pursue occupations that other states license.
Irrational and Inconsistent Burdens
The data collected here call into question the need for licensing some occupations at all, but they also highlight overly burdensome, irrational and arbitrary requirements imposed upon occupational aspirants. To begin, the severity of the licensure requirements often does not seem warranted by the nature of the work. Take auctioneer, for example. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles17 describes the work of an auctioneer as:
Sells articles at auction to highest bidder: Appraises merchandise before sale and assembles merchandise in lots according to estimated value of individual pieces or type of article. Selects article to be auctioned at suggestion of bidders or by own choice. Appraises article and determines or asks for starting bid. Describes merchandise and gives information about article, such as history and ownership, in order to encourage bidding. Continues to ask for bids, attempting to stimulate buying desire of bidders. Closes sale to highest bidder. May write auction catalog and advertising copy for local or trade newspapers and periodicals.
Although the occupation is somewhat specialized, it defies common sense that auctioneering requires permission from 33 states to practice with average requirements of 100 days—more than three months—in education and training, one exam and grade and age minimums. Worse, five states require a full year or even two of education and training to earn an auctioneer’s license.
Similarly, to become a manicurist—licensed in every state but Connecticut—requires an average of 87 days in education and training and two exams. In 10 states, securing a manicurist license takes more than four months. Yet at least in Colorado, less than one-third of that time is to be spent learning “disinfection, cleaning & safe work practices,” the only subjects related to health and safety.18
And keep in mind that the average burdens faced by would-be auctioneers and manicurists are somewhat low for the 102 occupations we studied: On average, the occupational licenses measured in this report keep job aspirants out of work for nine months, cost them about $209 and require them to pass one exam.
Not only do some licensure burdens look irrational when compared to the nature of the work, they look even more so when compared to the burdens faced by other occupations. For example, according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, an EMT, among other things,
Removes or assists in removal of victims from scene of accident or catastrophe . . . . Administers prescribed first-aid treatment at site of emergency, or in specially equipped vehicle, performing such activities as application of splints, administration of oxygen or intravenous injections, treatment of minor wounds or abrasions, or administration of artificial resuscitation.
Quite literally, EMTs hold lives in their hands, yet 66 other occupations have greater average licensure burdens than EMTs. This includes interior designers, barbers and cosmetologists, manicurists and a host of contractor designations. By way of perspective, the average cosmetologist spends 372 days in training; the average EMT a mere 33.
Licensure irrationalities are doubly evident in the inconsistencies by burden across states. Looking again at manicurists, while 10 states require four months or more of training, Alaska demands only about three days and Iowa about nine days. It seems unlikely that aspiring manicurists in Alabama (163 days) and Oregon (140 days) truly need so much more time in training. But manicurists are not alone. The education and experience requirements for animal trainers range from zero to almost 1,100 days, or three years. And for vegetation pesticide handlers, training obligations range from zero to 1,460 days, or four years, with fees up to $350.
This high degree of variation is prevalent throughout the occupations. Thirty-nine of them have differences of more than 1,000 days between the minimum and maximum number of days required for education and experience. And another 23 occupations have differences of more than 700 days.
Finally, irrationalities are particularly notable when few states license an occupation but do so onerously. One clear example is interior design, the most difficult of the 102 occupations to enter, yet licensed in only three states and D.C. Another is social service assistants, the fourth most difficult occupation to enter. It requires nearly three-and-a-half years of training but is only licensed in six states and D.C. Dietetic technicians must spend 800 days in education and training, making for the eighth most burdensome requirements, but they are licensed in only three states. Home entertainment installers must have about eight months of training on average, but only in three states. The seven states that license tree trimmers require, on average, more than a year of training.
14 St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79327 (E.D. La., July 21, 2011), pp. 18-19.
15 St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, p. 18.
16 Cooke, M. M. (2000). Interior designers. Denver, CO: Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, Office of Policy and Research; Nettles, E. L. (1991). Review of occupational registration and licensing for interior designers. Columbia, SC: State Reorganization Commission; Roper, W. H. (1989). Review of Senate Bill 305 which proposes to license interior designers in Georgia. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Occupational Regulation Review Council; Washington State Department of Licensing. (2005). Sunrise review of interior designers. Olympia, WA.