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When licensing isn't legit

by Dana D. Kelley | February 20, 2015 at 3:03 a.m.

Who knew that plant-nursery workers in Arkansas are required to have a license?

Not I, and probably not you. Maybe not even actual nursery workers who moved here from another state, unless they came from Idaho.

That's the only other state that requires a licensing fee for citizens who work in nursery facilities or at a customer location planting, cultivating, harvesting and transplanting trees, shrubs or plants.

Obviously, licensure serves valid and valuable purposes in certain occupations, such as the accounting, nursing and legal professions. Designations impart assurance of a level of training and proficiency, and present a threshold for standards above which professionals conduct themselves.

But licensure also has a long history of being abused as a means of limiting competition to protect earnings. Way back when Adam Smith was opining on economics with quill and parchment, he made mention of trades conspiring to raise wages by reducing the availability of skilled craftsmen.

Time, technology and the overreach of government and regulation have taken those primitive efforts to an advanced level, with alarming results.

A couple of years ago, the Institute for Justice conducted a groundbreaking extensive national study of the burdens caused by occupational licensing called "License to Work."

The study limited its scope to 102 low- and moderate-income occupations, like florists, painting contractors, interior designers, barbers, massage therapists, bill-collector agents, pest-control applicators, landscape workers--you get the picture. Jobs for working folks, the bulk of which offer entrepreneurial opportunities for small-business creation.

The study's premise was simple: In the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed government permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today it's one in three. How much of that is legitimate?

The study results confirmed the often arbitrary and irrational licensure inconsistencies among the states, and called into question how many (or how few) licenses genuinely protect the public better than other less burdensome options--bonding, voluntary certification, third-party ratings like Angie's List, etc. Data included both the number of licenses each state required from the list of 102 occupations, and the burden as qualified by fees, examinations, education/experience, and minimum grade level and age requirements.

The most troublesome--and eye-opening--aspect of the License to Work study is the prominent place Arkansas occupied in its rankings.

Arkansas requires licenses for 52 of the 102 occupations, more than 40 other states. Besides going hog-wild over licensure, Arkansas ranks second in the nation for the most onerous burdens its requirements impose on those licensed occupations. Overall, the combined scoring lands Arkansas as the fifth most extensively and onerously licensed state in the union.

To see what's most wrong with that picture, let's incorporate a little context in other occupational-related areas.

When it comes to per-capita paycheck amounts, Arkansas ranks next to last in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey five-year study. Arkansas households earn 23 percent less than the national median, ranking us again at 49th (thank goodness for Louisiana).

Regarding education, we're 44th among states in high school diploma attainment, 49th in percentage of people with a bachelor's degree and dead last for advanced degrees.

We are the last state that should be showing up atop a study of burdensome licensing requirements for low-paying occupations.

The aggregate high ranking is bad enough, but it gets even more ludicrous when you wade into the weeds of the study.

Arkansas' nation-leading five-year (1,825 days) education and training requirements for construction trade contractors contribute in large part to our stratospheric rating. Nearly half the states require no license at all for painters, masons, drywall installers and the like who want to start their own businesses. Among the 28 states with licensure requirements, only 10 require any education or training at all and it's a fraction of Arkansas', ranging from a high of 507 days to a low of 290 days.

Arkansas also licenses several occupations that few other states do. In addition to the laughable nursery example, we're also in the significant minority in requiring licensure for pharmacy techs, funeral attendants, residential drywall installation contractors and landscape workers. A mere three other states join us in requiring psychiatric technicians to be licensed.

The logic behind some Arkansas licensure gets lost in a careful analysis as well.

For example, Arkansans aspiring to become fire-alarm installers must invest in twice as much education and training (1,085 days) as the national average (486 days). Licensed opticians in Arkansas (only 22 states even license opticians) must undergo nearly a year more training than the national average.

Yet someone seeking to be an EMT, working literally in life-or-death situations, only needs 28 days of training to get licensed (a manicurist requires 140 days).

All this irrationality is relevant because a bill (House Bill 1158) that would allow Arkansans to contest over-burdensome government regulations they feel harm their ability to work goes to the House next week for approval.

It's a great first step toward correcting our way out-of-balance licensure so that Arkansas's onerous burden ranking lines up like it should for a state struggling with income distress and low education levels--near the bottom.


Dana Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 02/20/2015

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