From Juneau to Tallahassee, the issue of licensing reform is once again coming to the fore in statehouses across America as lawmakers weigh a range of measures to reverse the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
While licensing reform is predominately a state issue, the Trump administration has issued federal reports to guide state legislators on the difficult, delicate task of revising licensing laws.
Recently, the Trump administration issued an executive order loosening a raft of federal regulations in response to the pandemic. This approach is likely to be emulated by governors and state legislatures across America.
The purported intentions of the reformers: noble.
The apparent bipartisanship around their efforts: refreshing.
The allure of jumping onto their bandwagon: understandable.
However, as is so often the case with legislative solutions to complex problems, the devil is in the details — or perhaps, in the lack of them.
As we have seen throughout the current crisis, existing professional licensing models have allowed professionals to move to areas where their expertise is most needed without jeopardizing the public’s health, safety, and welfare. At all times, but especially during times of national crisis, the public needs to have confidence that our nation’s critical physical and financial infrastructure is in the hands of competent, qualified professionals.
While proposals to weaken licensing vary, there is a deeply troubling and potentially dangerous constant across them all: They rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.
These proposals make no distinction between easing licensing where there is a legitimate need and weakening necessary qualifications and licensing requirements for professions upon which the health, safety, and welfare of the public at large depend.
Fast-tracking these proposals, as some state lawmakers have suggested, would be a serious mistake.
It is not hard to imagine the consequences of unlicensed individuals planning highways where the curves are too sharp, roadways where hills are steep and hazardous in poor weather conditions, or bridges that are not designed to withstand earthquakes. The long-term consequences could be catastrophic.
Intentional or not, anti-licensing bills disregard the important role of licensing in setting a minimum level of expertise for high-impact, highly complex professions such as engineering and landscape architecture. The legislation also ignores the role of responsible licensing systems to ensure professionals stay current in their field and provide oversight and enforcement against bad actors.
Professional licensing systems are in place to protect the public. They’re rigorous for a reason — and they’re too important to be swept aside by broad-brush reform. Lawmakers need to realize and value what their constituents already know: Professional licensing protects the public, and the public supports professional licensing.
A nation-wide survey of likely voters released in February by the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing (ARPL) found that nearly three-quarters of voters believe it is important to regulate professionals in accounting, engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, surveying and related fields with high impact on the public’s safety and well-being.
This concern about licensing reform becoming indiscriminate deregulation is well-founded. Legislation that would do just that was popping up in statehouses before the pandemic with alarming regularity, and it is expected to return as legislatures and courts reconvene.
Some measures bizarrely suggested that professionals should show qualifications only after harm has occurred and then, only the least possible amount of qualification is required. A smarter approach is to start with a bias toward safety and verified qualifications. Proponents seem to have forgotten the adage "Better safe than sorry" — not "Better sorry than safe."
And the public agrees. The same ARPL survey found the public would rather be safe first with 71 percent of voters wanting licensing required — unless it can be proven that eliminating it will not impact public health and safety.
These proposals weaken professional licensing standards that keep the public safe, and the only remedies they offer for bad outcomes are costly litigation or posting a negative online review. That may work for bad take-out, but it is of little consolation for a structural deficiency in a bridge, road, or building.
No fair-minded observer questions that unnecessary barriers to entry exist for many occupations and trades. Governors, state legislators, and activist groups are right to focus their rhetoric and their energy on eliminating these barriers where possible to jumpstart an ailing economy.
Yet when it comes to professions with high public impact, maintaining licensing standards is imperative to ensuring public trust and safety.
As the discussions continue in statehouse committee rooms, lawmakers would do well to respect the concerns of their constituents and eschew risky, one-size-fits-all measures that would weaken critical qualifications and endanger the public they serve.
Tom Smith is executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Wendy Miller is president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).
Matthew M. Miller is Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards (CLARB).