We’ve been talking a lot about occupational licensing lately and that’s because it’s a big deal for economic opportunity. Requiring a state license to practice certain occupations began with good intentions – to protect the public from the harm that can come from someone practicing a profession in an unsafe or incompetent manner. But today nearly 30 percent of the American workforce needs a license to do their job, and those licenses do not always have a clear connection to public health and safety. In 21 states, for example, you need a license to be a travel guide. In Louisiana, you need a license to be a florist.
While many occupational licensing requirements have no public safety benefit, the do have clear drawbacks: they restrict entry into many professions by adding expense and imposing restrictions on who can practice the profession. For too many individuals, onerous requirements push licensed professions out of reach for reasons that have very little (or nothing at all) to do with public health and safety.
Two groups that are especially impacted by licensing requirements are low-income individuals and justice-involved people. For low-income individuals, the costs associated with required training and exam fees can be a barrier to entering a licensed profession. For those who have been justice-involved, blanket bans on anyone with a criminal history are a very common barrier to entry in too many licensed occupations.
We’ve made some progress, but not enough
Though Oklahoma is a mid-range state when it comes to occupational licensing (we don’t require a license for as many professions, but we have above average fees for the occupations we do license), there is plenty of room for progress on making licensed occupations more affordable and accessible. This session, the legislature did make some progress by adopting a measure (HB 2933) that will require most occupational licensing boards to waive licensing fees for low-income individuals for one year. And that’s a worthwhile first step. But there’s more that we can do to help low-income Oklahomans access licensed professions.
Waiving licensing fees is a start, but many licensed occupations have education and training requirements, and those can be expensive. For example, to qualify to take the cosmetology exam you’ll first need to complete 1,500 hours of training. That training can cost more than $6,000 at a public career tech college, and more than $30,000 at a for-profit college. These training costs will be out of reach for many low-income Oklahomans looking to improve their economic situation.
Barriers are still high for the justice involved
Unfortunately, we saw very little progress to make licensing easier for those with a criminal background this year. Blanket bans that automatically disqualify anyone with a criminal history from getting the license — even if an individual’s specific criminal activity happened decades ago and has nothing to do with the duties of the occupation — are all too common. Automatically closing so many occupations to anyone with a criminal background is a major barrier to successful re-entry for the justice involved.
HB 2894 would have prohibited blanket bans and required licensing agencies and boards to list specific criminal activities relevant to the duties of the occupation that would prevent someone from getting a particular license. Though this bill overwhelmingly passed the House, it was never taken up in the Senate. By making it harder to earn a stable and secure living, we are increasing the likelihood of recidivism and increasing our criminal justice costs as a state.
There is some light at the end of this tunnel. One of the successes of the 2018 Legislature was the passage of SB 1475, which creates a commission to review occupational license requirements in Oklahoma and make recommendations to the legislature. It’s very possible that the work of reforming occupational licensing to create more opportunity will continue with this newly formed Occupational Licensing Advisory Commission. And that’s good news! Reviewing each license to determine whether the requirements are reasonable and necessary to protect public health and safety gives us a good chance of uncovering (and recommending changes to) those licensing requirements that are overly onerous or unreasonable. And that will open up licensed professions to more Oklahomans seeking decent jobs with good pay.