Have you ever happened to notice the official state license on the wall while sitting in a barber’s chair and wondered why he needs such a document? Does it comfort you to know that Rhode Island is one of only seven states that requires professional licenses for upholsterers?
The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm, has just released a study of state licensing requirements for low- and moderate-income careers across the United States. These are the jobs to which less-skilled residents and those displaced from their industries are likely to turn for income, especially during prolonged economic downturns.
Rhode Island ranks fourteenth in the nation in the number of jobs requiring licenses, with 49 of the 102 occupations in this income range that are licensed anywhere in the country. The Institute also combined total license fees with requirements for training and testing to rank the states by overall burden, and by that measure, Rhode Island comes in twenty-second.
The state leads the nation in the burden that it places on HVAC contractors, in large part due to the 1,900 days of required education or experience. The most expensive licenses in Rhode Island are those for auctioneers and sign-language interpreters with $725 and $710 in start-up fees respectively. And the burden on barbers, cosmetologists, and manicurists are all greater than those on emergency medical technicians, according to the study. In the case of EMTs, RI has the second most-expensive licenses and imposes the eighth greatest burden.
What determines the need for licenses or the relative difficulty of acquiring them? The study’s authors suggest that it may have much to do with “the lobbying prowess of practitioners in securing laws to shut out competition.” In other words, those already in the professions can charge higher rates to the extent that they keep newcomers out of them.
Given the nature of lower-income occupations, such barriers to entry disproportionately affect the minorities and the working poor. They also disproportionately affect men. In 2011, Rhode Island’s average unemployment rate was 11.1%, seasonally adjusted. For men, it was 12.0%. For black men, the number was 20.1%; for Hispanic men, it was 20.9%. In Pennsylvania, which has the lowest licensing burden in the nation, according to the Institute for Justice, those rates are 8.3%, 15.5%, and 15.3%.
The General Assembly has been making noise, recently, about “making business easy” in Rhode Island. But none of the proposed legislation will take the state off the list of seven that license tree trimmers or, for that matter, any list of state licenses.