Politics, Workforce Development

Biases and Flaws in Occupational Licensing: A Barrier to Economic Mobility

For the last 10 years, my focus in academic studies, community involvement, and professional pursuits has centered on increasing access to economic opportunity. Affordable education programs, like those I developed at Coursera, are useful for unlocking new careers for historically underrepresented populations. Equally important is the identification and removal of regulations that create unnecessary barriers to entry and disproportionately burden low-income and immigrant communities.

In a recent Atlantic article, Jerusalem Demsas writes about the proliferation of professional licensing requirements. These state-mandated licenses – generally not transferable across states and usually requiring a college degree – exist across fields from landscaping to interior design and beauty. The requirements for these licenses are typically informed by interest groups that represent existing professionals in that field. However, these existing professionals may be biased towards driving wages higher and decreasing overall employment.

Though the need for licensing is important in areas like medicine and heavy machine operation (in order to ensure safety, for instance), too often occupational licensing exists only to protect incumbent professionals at the detriment of those who need these opportunities most. For instance, Demsas cites one study of immigrant workers that found, “… an average county could expect a 17.6 percent decline in [immigrant] Vietnamese manicurists per capita for every 100 extra hours of required training.”

These licensing rules focus narrowly on prescribed pathways. This gets to Demsas’ main point – licensing rules all to often create unnecessary barriers to entry with-out aligning with what consumers/citizens require of them:

I don’t need government workers to license interior designers to ensure that a restaurant is aesthetically pleasing; I need them to certify that the food is safe by regularly inspecting establishments. I don’t need the government to decide who’s qualified to work as a locksmith; I can ask my neighbors or check Yelp for advice. And although a test may be appropriate to guarantee that someone can operate a forklift, a college degree most certainly isn’t.

Importantly, this isn’t an argument for ‘small government’, as Demsas concludes, “A strong government well staffed with experts would write clear regulations and enforce them” rather than, “[impose] permission-slip requirements pushed by interest groups,” and “rel[y] on consumers to pursue private legal remedies if anything goes wrong.” When we, or our elected officials, abdicate responsibility in writing these laws, we allow those with the most to lose the ability to create higher and higher and higher barriers to entry. At the same time, by implementing smarter, rather than more, policies we can expand access to opportunity for the communities that need it the most.