Op-Ed

Removing the barriers of licenses from low-income job seekers

What should North Carolina lawmakers’ New Year’s resolutions be? I have a suggestion: Break down barriers to opportunity for the least fortunate.

Elected officials in city hall in the state capital should start by rolling back burdensome occupational licensing regulations, which stand in the way of low-income job-seekers and budding entrepreneurs.

Most people have never heard of occupational licenses, yet they are a growing hindrance to economic mobility both in North Carolina and across the country. Before you can work in many professions, you are forced to seek permission from your state or local government in the form of an occupational license. To make matters more difficult, you often have to pay a significant sum of money or spend months – and sometimes years – in training before beginning your career.

That wasn’t a huge deal when occupational licenses applied only to lawyers, doctors and airline pilots. But other businesses quickly found they could handicap competitors and innovative start-ups if they licensed their own industries.

In July, the White House released a report detailing how occupational licensing laws have proliferated: “(M)ore than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs.” At the state level, “the share of workers licensed … has risen five-fold since the 1950s.” One recent academic estimate even puts the number of licensed jobs at nearly 1 in 3.

Today, after years of lobbying campaigns by special interests, occupational licenses apply to hundreds of different entry-level and mid-level professions. North Carolina is no exception. It’s actually the 17th most heavily licensed state in America.

According to the Institute for Justice, no fewer than 48 of the 100 most common low- and moderate-income jobs in the state require licenses. Barber. Landscape worker. Locksmith. On the whole, the average North Carolina license costs $180 and requires 250 days in education or training. Many basic jobs require more training than an emergency medical technician.

And those are just some of the state occupational licenses. There are even more passed by cities like Raleigh, which only restrict further an individual’s attempt to earn a living. These laws vary – and conflict – from city to city and state to state, making it that much harder for North Carolinians to find work and make a living.

We’re starting to learn just how much harm occupational licenses have caused. The White House again put it best, saying that licensing can “raise the price of goods and services” and “restrict employment opportunities” for those who need them most.

Occupational licenses also turn away potential entrepreneurs, especially in low-income communities. A 2015 study by an Arizona State University researcher found that heavier licensing correlates with an 11 percent lower entrepreneurship rate for people at the bottom of the income scale.

These licenses also harm those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system. Once nonviolent ex-offenders pay their debt to society, they should be encouraged to rejoin it by finding a job or starting a business. Sadly, their own government bars them from pursuing a career that requires a license.

Knocking down these barriers is both morally praiseworthy and economically beneficial. Lawmakers in Raleigh city hall and the state capital should – at the very least – prevent the creation of new occupational licenses. Better yet, they should roll back those that already exist. If lawmakers do this, they’ll help countless low- and middle-income North Carolinians improve their lives and climb the ladder of opportunity.

Surely that’s a New Year’s resolution worth making – and keeping.

Mark V. Holden is general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries.

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