Occupational Licensing Is Broken in Pennsylvania

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Across the United States, the occupational licensing process is broken. Licensing boards present an impassable barrier for too many people who want to start new careers. We’ve allowed these boards to throttle the labor market for professions ranging from nurses to barbers to campsite-membership salespeople, auctioneers, and cemetery brokers. 

It’s true here in Pennsylvania, too. The licensing process creates artificial scarcity, and at a time when costs are rising for families, these strictures limit the labor market and drive up costs. 

We require people to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to enter professions that should have low barriers and easy entry. Becoming a cosmetologist, for example, now requires 1,250 hours of training and an average of $16,000 to pay for program training. It’s absurd and counterproductive.

If Pennsylvania wants to make its labor market more competitive, it should aggressively challenge the industry-licensing boards. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro has taken steps to speed up the licensing process. He issued an executive order setting a maximum time for agencies to process applications. If an agency exceeds the specified time, it must refund the application fee. 

This is a good first step, but the problems go deeper. 

Licensing boards are designed to make it more difficult for people to get jobs in their chosen fields. Licensing requirements are often developed and enforced by people already in the industry, allowing them to block others from entering. This makes their own labor more valuable, which is good for them but drives up costs for everyone else, while preventing economic vibrancy and mobility.

We need a bipartisan legislative effort to dramatically reduce the barriers for entry to many professions and to reform occupational licensing. 

The state legislature has taken some steps in this direction. In 2019, Pennsylvania passed universal licensing recognition, which allowed Pennsylvanians to receive an occupational license if they held one in another state. 

Unfortunately, the state’s occupational licensing boards are standing in the way of progress in other areas – even as the state has implemented clean-slate legislation that makes it easier for people to reenter the workforce after serving time for criminal offenses. 

In 2020, the legislature passed a bill designed to prevent licensing boards from blocking applicants guilty of unrelated offenses to the practice of their occupation and stopping them from using the vague category of good moral character to prevent people from receiving licenses. The legislation directed the licensing boards to review offenses and develop a commonsense list of offenses related to the occupation while waiving unrelated infractions.

Unfortunately, empowering the boards to determine what offenses were relevant to each profession produced a laundry list, thwarting the intention of the legislation.

By refusing to take reform efforts seriously, Pennsylvania’s occupational licensing boards make an even stronger case for wholesale reform. Models and proposals are emerging, however, that are worth building on.  

After thoroughly reviewing Pennsylvania’s occupational licensing program, former Gov. Tom Wolf proposed eliminating 13 licenses, including those for campsite-membership salespersons and hair braiders. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu called for eliminating 34 licenses and 14 regulatory boards. In Arizona, former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was a leader on universal recognition and other licensing reforms. Florida, Texas, and Virginia have also taken encouraging steps. 

Occupational licensing reform is a rare area of bipartisan agreement that can make people’s lives easier without an associated cost. Pennsylvania is poised to build on the work already underway in this area and emerge as a national leader. Removing one of the primary obstacles to economic vibrancy in the commonwealth, especially at a time when we need more growth and economic mobility, should be a no-brainer. Reforming occupational licensing will help Pennsylvania grow, reduce costs for families, and help more people find work and careers.

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