Magazine article Information Today

I'm Licensed to Write This Column

Magazine article Information Today

I'm Licensed to Write This Column

Article excerpt

I probably would not have paid much attention to the following story, except that I used to live in Oregon, and my son is studying engineering. This summer, National Review ran a column by George Will ( oregon-engineeringlicense-case-mats-jarlstrom-free-speech) about Mats Jarlstrom, a self-employed Oregon resident who had emigrated from Sweden 25 years earlier. It seems that Jarlstrom's wife got a ticket from a red light camera, and he began looking into the .problem. His research led him to question the mathematical formulas for timing red light cameras, and he both wrote and spoke about this issue. In response, the state of Oregon fined him $500 for the "unlicensed practice of engineering." It turns out that Jarlstrom has both a degree and work experience in engineering from his days in Sweden, but not an Oregon-issued license.

Will's column focuses primarily on the free speech issues associated with the state licensing board's actions, but this ties into a larger issue that is getting some attention from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Congress, the presidential administration, and others--specifically, state-based occupational licensing and its role in the costs and benefits of these requirements on the national economy. As the economy becomes increasingly mobile and digital, the impact of and restrictions created by these licensing requirements are being increasingly scrutinized.

One in Three Americans Needs a License

I have such a license, specifically, a license to practice law in Idaho, which was issued by the Idaho State Bar Association and authorized by the state of Idaho. I had to go through 3 years of law school, plus take and pass a 3-day exam in order to obtain that license. It is only good in Idaho; if I want to practice law in Illinois (my current residence), I would have to take and pass that state's exam. (As I no longer actively practice law, I don't have to do that. Thank goodness!) But it's not just lawyers: According to the Institute for Justice (, a public interest law firm and advocacy group, nearly one in three Americans needs a license of some sort to practice an occupation.

The license requirements can vary dramatically by profession and by state. A 2012 report by the Institute for Justice outlined more than 100 "low- and moderate-income" occupations that require a license. These include barber, bartender, electrical helper, funeral attendant, packager, security guard, taxi driver, and upholsterer. (Law is among an additional collection of professional occupations requiring licensing, including medicine, teaching, nursing, dentistry, and, yes, engineering.) The report also outlines often significant costs, the number of exams required, the days of training or experience required, and other factors necessary to obtain a license within a particular state.

Consumer Protection?

Licensing advocates indicate that the requirements are necessary to protect consumers and the public from untrained and/or unethical practitioners. Given that many of the occupations involve matters such as construction, personal or health caregiving, transportation, and child care--for which adequate training and skills can be crucial--this makes sense. However, critics of licensing requirements argue that they also reduce competition, impose unnecessary and self-interested barriers on employment, and limit a worker's ability to move from state to state. Why, they ask, should a hairstylist who is licensed and practices in Idaho have to start over if moving to Illinois? …

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