Opinion: Carolina Beat

Occupational Licensing Reform Will Enhance Freedom in N.C.

Over the last four years, comprehensive reforms have turned our state around, with higher-than-expected state revenues, growing income statewide and per resident, and the creation of 234,000 net new jobs. North Carolina has become a model, not only in our region, but also for the nation.

But until every North Carolinian has the opportunity to find a job, until every barrier to succeed is removed, until the freedom to choose is open to all, there is still work to do.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a requirement from the North Carolina Dental Board for people who whiten teeth but perform no other dental services to get a license. The General Assembly is taking a hard look at North Carolina’s occupational licensing laws to clean up a very messy system.

North Carolina has one of the more restrictive occupational licensing regimes in the country — 154 licensed job categories, compared to South Carolina, with only 49.

There are inconsistencies throughout the system. It costs $300 for a license to practice law but $923 to become a sign language interpreter. It takes 169 hours of training to earn an emergency medical technician license but 1,528 hours for a barber.

Some requirements for state licensing leave you scratching your head. Makeup artists, landscape contractors, and travel guides must be licensed in North Carolina.

These restrictions ripple through our economy, preventing people from pursuing their dreams, and driving up the costs of services.

Who benefits? It’s often those already in a profession who want to protect what they perceive as their turf, keep out competition, and inflate costs for their financial and professional benefit.

But it’s also complicated. We want to open opportunity while ensuring public health and safety. It’s a balance between appropriate government oversight and the freedom to choose your occupation.

That’s something we’ve been studying at the John Locke Foundation. There is a lot of research on occupational licensing — from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, the state auditor’s office, the Institute for Justice, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Goldwater Institute, and even the White House.

The findings are pretty consistent:

  • When it’s harder to enter a profession, there are fewer employment opportunities, excluded workers earn lower wages, and consumer costs rise.
  • Inconsistencies within professions and variations across states create barriers for workers to relocate, and inefficiencies for businesses are a drag on the economy.
  • The cost of licensing falls disproportionally on low-income workers.
  • Well-designed and carefully implemented licensing requirements can benefit consumers while allowing qualified workers to pursue freely the occupations they choose.

Implementing a system that balances safety and freedom will make North Carolina a model in occupational licensing, just as North Carolina has become a model in other reforms.

The need for reform goes beyond data. Reform can help every North Carolinian who is shut out of opportunities to pursue their dreams.

It’s for the young man who wants to open a barber shop in his low-income neighborhood and provide access to a quality service at an affordable price — but with 1,528 hours of experience and training required to get a license, plus passing three different exams, becoming a barber is out of reach.

It’s for the military spouse who has worked as an optician in one of the 28 states that do not require a license and finds that when her spouse is transferred to Fort Bragg, her experience is irrelevant. She must log 3½ years of apprenticeship training, pay a $250 fee, and pass various exams to get a license here. Continuing in her profession is out of reach.

It’s for the handyman dad who wants to open his own business — installing security alarms. But with 1,095 days of training and experience required to obtain a license, the obligations of his current full-time job, and his family commitments, the dream of starting his own business is out of reach.

North Carolina’s restrictive occupational licensing requirements create barriers for real people, impede their choices, and prevent them from pursuing their dreams. That’s why reform is absolutely necessary.

Becki Gray is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.