How licensing reform lost its way 

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As Congress and the Biden administration inch closer to a deal to infuse over one trillion dollars into state and local infrastructure projects, the American people deserve to have trust and confidence in the integrity of what is being built and the rigorous training and qualifications of the people behind it.

This is because there are strong, responsible requirements for civil engineers, architects, and others involved in designing and constructing infrastructure and the built environment.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers across the country are threatening to weaken or eliminate licensure vital to protecting the public. 

Rigorous professional licensing, including qualifications, enforcement, and oversight, provides an important and trusted framework upon which the public relies.

The issue gained national attention last month when President Biden signed an Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy that addresses occupational regulations.

What may have started, as far back as the Obama Administration, as a well-intentioned effort to lower barriers to entry for some occupations has now morphed into an extreme attempt to downgrade or even eliminate licensing writ large, including for the engineers, surveyors, architects, landscape architects, and CPAs.

Just this past year, a cluster of new, extreme anti-licensing bills popped up in numerous states, ranging from measures that would eliminate licensing entirely to so-called “Universal Licensing” bills that would require states to accept licenses from any state regardless of whether the out-of-state license had the same level of qualifications behind it. 

Perhaps the most troubling and dangerous aspect of this agenda is that many of the proposals authored by these groups do not acknowledge that licensing standards for barbers and manicurists should be treated differently from those for engineers and architects.

In their absolutist free-market view, reflected in the language of their model legislation, a visit to a barbershop or beauty salon should be treated the same as designing a bridge or water treatment plant.

Anti-licensing forces often point to issues with an occupation such as hairstyling to argue for the wholesale weakening of licensing across all professions and occupations.

This is a misguided view because it fails to make an important distinction between occupations and professions responsible for the safety and integrity of our critical infrastructure, public spaces, and financial systems.

Consumers instinctively understand this key difference in impact. That is why polls show that consumers value licensing and want it protected. According to a survey taken last year, nearly two-thirds of voters believe that consumers are best protected by a system that regulates education, examination, and experience standards — all of which are overseen by a professional licensing board.

Further, a recent study from Oxford Economics indicates that licensing actually narrows the wage gap between men and women, and professionals of diverse backgrounds.

Simply put: to be anti-licensing is to be anti-consumer.

Fortunately for the public, lawmakers are starting to appreciate that their constituents want rigorous professional licensing. Many of the more than 200 anti-licensing bills introduced in 40 jurisdictions — according to our count — were defeated or withdrawn this past session, but their proponents will surely be back next session to try again.

As state lawmakers begin thinking about how they will allocate new federal dollars in anticipation of a much-needed national infrastructure bill, they must eschew the anti-licensing proposals coming from a loud cadre of hardliners.

Instead, they will best serve their constituents by embracing smart policies and a balanced conversation around licensing.

When done right, licensing can lead to genuinely needed improvements that benefit professionals and the public they serve.

When done wrong, it runs the risk of creating a new host of unintended consequences where consumers end up being hurt worst and first.

Lawmakers must resolve never to lose sight of the fundamental truth that licensing exists to protect the public.

Tom Smith is the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Michael Armstrong is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Tags Biden infrastructure plan Civil engineering Construction standards engineers Joe Biden Licensing Reform Licensure professional licensing Safety State legislatures

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