Let’s say you want to change careers. Or maybe you’re a recent graduate thinking about what you’d like to do as you enter the workforce. Like an increasing number of American workers, you might find that stiff requirements to get an occupational license stand in the way.

In theory, occupational license requirements come from a desire to protect the public from harm by someone practicing a profession in an incompetent or unsafe manner. Often, that makes sense.  Doctors must have a license to practice medicine, for example.  To get that license they must prove that they have the necessary education — because if they don’t, patients could be seriously harmed.

However, an increasing number of professions now require a license to practice somewhere in America, and not all of this growth is born of strong public health and safety concerns. In 1950, just 5 percent of the American workforce needed a license to do their job – now it’s nearly 30 percent. In Louisiana, for example, you need a license to be a florist. In 21 states, you’ll need a license to be a travel guide.

The growth in occupational licensing is a concern for many individuals and groups on both sides of the partisan aisle. Free market and libertarian groups like the Institute for Justice and Americans for Prosperity, centrist think tanks like the Brookings Institute, and former president Barack Obama have all advocated for reforms in occupational licensing.

Unchecked growth of licensing is fueling concern in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is a mid-range state when it comes to licensing – we don’t require a license for as many occupations as some other states, buy we tend to have above average fees for the occupations we do license. A 2012 study by the Institute for Justice ranked Oklahoma as the 11th most burdensome state in terms of licensing – we only license 29 of 102 low to moderate-income occupations, but we charge an average of $116 in fees for a license.

Last December, Governor Fallin formed a task force, headed by Labor Commissioner Melissa Houston, to examine Oklahoma’s occupational licensing practices and suggest reforms and revisions.  The task force released a draft blueprint for evaluating whether government licensing of an occupation is necessary. Last month, they held a public meeting at which OK Policy provided testimony about the impact of occupational licensing on low-income workers.

Additionally, the Foundation for Government Accountability spoke about the difficulty the state-by-state system of licensing poses for military spouses, who move more more often, and generally across state lines. The Department of Corrections spoke about the extraordinary burden that the licensing system places on those with a criminal background since people with a felony conviction in their past are barred from many of the professions that require a license.

Clearly, there is growing consensus for reform in the state on this issue.

Licenses can be an expensive barrier to getting a better job, especially for low-income workers

Fees alone are often not the most expensive part of getting an occupational license. In fact, some fees are quite minimal.  The fee for a cosmetology license in Oklahoma is $25, plus a $35 fee to sit the required exam. Although this is more than a full day’s salary for someone working for the minimum wage, it could be manageable for a lot of people.  But to qualify to take the cosmetology exam (and get a license) you’ll first need to complete 1,500 hours of education and training. A full course of training at a public career tech college can cost nearly $4,000. At a for-profit college, it can be more than $30,000! On the other hand, Emergency Medical Technicians need to complete only 252 hours of education and training.

Education requirements for occupational licenses can seem arbitrary, and they can place a heavy burden on low-income individuals looking to move into a career. These individuals already face more obstacles to steady employment. Low-income workers typically have lower educational attainment, so they can’t apply for many jobs or careers with educational requirements.  They typically have little to no savings to invest in training for a new career. They may also face difficultly with the logistics of navigating the bureaucratic structures that control licensing – lack of transportation, ID, or a checking account could all be major hang-ups when trying to obtain a license. And if they have a criminal record they may be unable to get a license, furthering the prison-to-poverty pipeline.

Are licenses a necessary burden?

Sometimes a license will be the most appropriate way to ensure public health and safety.  And when that’s the case, some training will also be necessary to make sure that practitioners work in a safe and responsible way. But we need to be very careful to ensure that the training requirements are appropriate for the level of potential harm that could be caused.

Since licensing and education requirements vary from state to state, we do have opportunities to determine what level of requirement produces what level of return in consumer health and safety. For example, a makeup artist needs 140 days of training in Oklahoma to be licensed, but this profession does not require a license at all in 14 states. Are makeup artists in Oklahoma less likely to cause injury or harm than those in unlicensed states? A school bus driver needs a recommended 20 hours of training in Oklahoma, but a full year or more in 19 states.  Are school children safer in those states that require more extensive training?

Education and training requirements for a license should match the level of risk.  Making appropriate adjustments to these requirements would be the best first step in helping low-income Oklahomans gain access to licensed occupations.