Op-ed: The Dangerous Push to Downgrade Professional Licensing
It is disappointing but not surprising that a small but vocal group of hardliners, backed by wealthy and powerful special interests, is trying to convince state lawmakers that the silver bullet for these challenges is to downgrade professional licensing across the board.
To hear them tell it, these proposals would eliminate barriers to entry into the workforce and provide an economic boon to workers, especially women and people of color. However, their pitch crumbles upon contact with reality — notably the latest economic research on the subject.
Case in point: The Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing, for which I serve as executive director, partnered with an internationally recognized research firm, Oxford Economics, to analyze all professions and occupations in the U.S. and found that licensing is associated with 6.5 percent higher wages on average.
The report also found that women and minorities in job fields requiring advanced education and training (architects, CPAs, engineers, landscape architects and surveyors, among others) benefit significantly from licensing. For these workers, the results show that a license narrows the gender-driven wage gap by about one-third and the race-driven wage gap by about half.
The report makes clear that licensing impacts professions, occupations and populations differently and is a clear driver of higher wages and stronger economies. It lays out a bevy of red flags to lawmakers and policy-setters who are considering overbroad legislation to roll back their state licensing programs.
The anti-licensing crowd consistently fails to make the critical distinction between occupational licensing and professional licensing. Occupations are significantly different from professions with high public impact such as architects, CPAs, engineers, landscape architects and surveyors. As such, the licensing systems governing professions are more rigorous and should not be diluted in the name of “reform.” One size does not fit all. It is this persistent failure to tell unlike things apart that ends up harming the very people the proposals purport to help.
If anti-licensing measures eliminate a pathway for success and a more even playing field, surely there must be some good these measures deliver? Unfortunately, no. The same proposals that would take away a powerful equalizer for opportunity and earning also put consumers and the public at risk.
It is no accident that during their most recent legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers rejected a so-called “universal licensing” bill after outcry from their constituents about its deleterious consequences. The defeat of this bill marks the third time in three years that Mountain State lawmakers have rejected this type of anti-licensing proposal. In recent years, lawmakers from Wisconsin to Arizona have also flirted with the idea of weakening or eliminating professional licensing, only to pull back such proposals when they realized the tremendous risk they would pose to their constituents.
Most Americans recognize the critical role that licensing and licensing boards play in protecting the public. A 2020 survey conducted by Benenson Strategy Group found that 75 percent of voters believe that it is important to ensure qualifications for professionals in certain industries. A majority of voters believes that current professional licensing requirements protect the public and should not be reformed, and more than 70 percent believe that it’s important to regulate professionals in accounting, engineering, architecture, landscape architecture and related fields with high impact on the public’s health, safety and welfare.
This public sentiment is why so many lawmakers are rightly wary of the anti-licensing proposals being floated in their statehouses. Time and again we have seen that such a broad-brush policy not only does not work but actually harms the people it claims to help: working professionals and the public at large.
Marta Zaniewski is executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing and vice president for state regulatory and legislative affairs at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Op-ed published in Governing.com: