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Op-ed: Reduce occupational licensing burden to help Georgians find jobs

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Doctors, accountants, and teachers need college degrees before they can work. They also need special government permission, called an occupational license. The purpose is to protect health and safety. But Georgia regulators go further.

They impose licensing burdens on more than 200 occupations, including dozens that do not traditionally require higher education or pose serious public risks. People need licenses to paint fingernails, mow lawns, and organize tour groups in Georgia.

State lawmakers even tried to force lactation consultants to attend two years of college and complete more than 300 hours of supervised clinical work before helping nursing mothers and their infants. Competent professionals have provided this service safely for thousands of years without credentials, but regulators did not care. They refused to back down until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against them on May 31.

The saga, which stretched for nearly a decade, is part of a troubling trend. Nationwide, occupational licenses increasingly dominate the labor market. The result in Georgia has been many people blocked from earning an honest living in their chosen careers, even while the economy has tanked.

A University of Georgia poll from November of 2022 found that 66% of registered voters in the state considered the nation moving in the wrong direction. A more recent Bloomberg poll similarly found that the economy was by far the top issue for people in several swing states, including Georgia.

State lawmakers are aware of the growing discontent — and the link to occupational licensing. The Georgia Senate Study Committee on Occupational Licensing held a series of hearings in recent months to discuss ways to ease licensing burdens and give people a better shot at landing quality jobs.

Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, participated in these hearings and provided testimony based on the experience gained while representing the lactation consultants. Victory in the case was important. But research shows Georgia still has work to do.

Nearly one in five workers in the state must get an occupational license before they can legally do their job. “License to Work,” a 2022 study from our firm, shows the average license for low- and moderate-income jobs in Georgia involves 472 days of education and experience.

The time investment is just the beginning. Required coursework often costs thousands of dollars in tuition — not to mention the associated expenses related to transportation, childcare, and lost wages.

Cosmetologists, for example, must pay an average of $17,569 for their programs. The average student takes out $7,852 in federal loans. But despite such a hefty investment, many cosmetologists barely earn enough to get by. Half of cosmetologists make less than $22,970 a year. When the cost of training roughly matches a full year’s wages, the challenges people face trying to provide for themselves and dependents should be clear.

The research against occupational licensing overkill is also clear. Yet the burden has continued to grow.

Georgia used to have a program of sunrise review for new occupational licenses. Whenever a new job requirement was proposed, state analysts had to study its need and its potential costs and burdens. The analysts also considered the availability of less restrictive alternatives.

Between 1985 and 2017, Georgia conducted 38 sunrise reviews across 28 different occupations. Analysts determined that many proposed regulations were unfounded. Overall, only 16% of Georgia’s sunrise reviews recommended creating new licenses.

The Georgia Senate study committee could help restore efforts like this. Already, it has heard several encouraging ideas from several organizations and released promising recommendations for reform, including reforming licensing laws so people with criminal records who have turned their lives around can find work. The committee also has recommended sunsetting some licensing requirements that do not exist in other states.

Georgia must now put actions to words and reduce occupational licensing requirements that play no part in upholding safety standards. All people should have a fair shot at earning an honest living. Georgians don’t just deserve it, they need it.

Jaimie Cavanaugh is an attorney and Phillip Suderman is communications project manager at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

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