Opinion: Licensing hamstrings state workforce

Greg McNeilly
“One contributing factor for the increase in fatalities is the state’s improved economy,” National Council for Occupational Safety and Health director Bart Pickleman said. “There’s more construction work and work in other industries.”

Earlier this month, lawmakers in Connecticut took to social media to congratulate themselves on passage of a bill setting up a new licensure requirement for men and women who apply eyelash extensions at beauty salons. Those kooky East Coast liberals. 

It was a comical example of big government run wild, but the reality is, in Michigan, onerous, arbitrary and costly licensure requirements are no laughing matter. 

We’re the state where a license to work as an auto mechanic costs $6 for a standard test, but a makeup artist is forced to graduate from a 400-hour course, pass practical and written exams, and pay the state $200. 

Professional licenses are often a serious and expensive barrier to workers. Michigan lawmakers must dramatically reduce the number of professional licenses required, and significantly ease Michiganians' access to those that remain on the books — and they should do this now.

Often, state licensure requirements aren’t really about helping state government ensure quality results; they’re about helping politically connected professionals legally exclude thousands of less connected individuals who might be interested in landing the same work or job. 

And worse, sometimes the barriers are set up just to ensure a non-government association has justification to exist. There becomes a cozy little cottage industry in Lansing between these groups and the appointment process to their licensure boards.

This kind of cronyism doesn’t just hurt the women and men it cuts out of jobs, it also hurts families by driving up prices. One study found that the annual cost to consumers in Michigan is as high as $10.4 billion.

In Michigan, state licensing officials long ago stopped attempting to keep up the appearance of being fair arbiters and consumer defenders. Just look at the list of work for which Michigan requires a license — and the work for which it doesn’t.

Want to demolish a house? Need a license. Want to pick one up and move it? No license.

Want to lay tile and marble flooring? License. Vinyl flooring? No license. Install siding? License. Install fencing? No license.  

Then there are the wildly different training and cost requirements within occupations that are licensed, like mechanics and makeup artists. For years, licensing boards have even used their approval process to stand in the way of individuals with very minor or entirely unrelated criminal histories from obtaining a license to work.

This is an injustice, and a costly one. It keeps talented women and men out of the workforce, drives up prices, and it encourages recidivism. 

It’s important to remember, though, that those with a prior minor conviction represent only a small portion of the individuals hurt by this onerous professional licensing cabal. A study published last year by the Archbridge Institute found that occupational licensing is directly linked with less economic mobility and greater income inequality. 

In other words, all of these arbitrary state rules and regulations that tell you when you can work, how you can work, how much training you need to work and how much you have to pay the government to work, make it more difficult for everyone to make a better living, and it makes it tougher for residents to escape poverty.

The Michigan Freedom Fund strongly supports a package of bills in the state legislature designed to reduce the impact that minor criminal violations in areas unrelated to a profession have on people’s ability to get a job they’ve worked hard for, but that important group of reforms represents only a good start.

Bipartisanship has been the buzzword around Lansing for the last six months, and these bills might just stand a chance under the Capitol dome. While they’re at it, they should tackle licensure reform more broadly. Let's get the government out of workers’ way.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.