Professional licensure is an important tool for ensuring quality and maintaining high standards for the good of consumers and practitioners alike. It can also be a major barrier to opportunity.
Many professionals, such as healthcare workers and teachers, must be licensed to work in their field. This often means hours of coursework, examinations, and review by a licensing board. It also often varies from state to state—meaning a nurse who moves states because his spouse is redeployed or a teacher living in a border town seeking a new opportunity across state lines may be essentially starting from scratch.
Licensure requirements also disproportionately burden those who face the highest hurdles for entering the workforce—especially people from low-income households, people with criminal records, and military personnel and their spouses. Getting a license can be expensive and often means working fewer hours (and sacrificing wages) to fulfill training requirements. And the license is usually only valid in the state that granted it, precluding job opportunities beyond state borders.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some states crafted temporary licensing policies to fill healthcare and education staff vacancies. Though these policies helped fill immediate needs, these types of short-term, crisis-driven solutions aren't built to last. Policymakers must find permanent solutions that maintain skill and safety standards while removing barriers to the workforce.
The first step to addressing issues with professional licensure is for states to assess the effect of current requirements. For example, a Wisconsin statute requires the state licensing entity to conduct a fee study every two years. In 2019, due to findings from the most recent study, the state implemented a new fee structure that reduced licensing fees for 127 occupations and professions—approximately 74% of all occupations licensed by the state of Wisconsin.
In Utah, the governor called on state agencies to review licensure requirements to ensure they are necessary and are not outdated or incomplete. And the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that Kentucky banned licensing boards from denying someone a license simply because of a criminal record without holding a hearing.
Obtaining a professional license can be challenging for anyone, but it is especially difficult for people from certain populations, such as low-income households or military families that move often. States can implement fee waivers or reduced fee programs for people who meet certain criteria. They can also support education programs that include a path to licensure as part of the curriculum.
Collaboration is key to removing a substantial barrier to licensure: portability. In many instances, when people move to a new state, they must pay to recertify or renew their professional license, even if they hold a valid license in the state they just left.
Implementing interstate compacts—professional licensing agreements between states—would help cut down on the time and financial sacrifice required to obtain a new license. In fact, a handful of states, including Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota, have enacted forms of universal licensure, letting certain new residents practice within their borders using licenses issued in another state.