Washington state’s professional licensing laws are out of whack and can discriminate against people trained out of state or the country.

Share story

LET’S say two immigrants arrive in the United States. One is a trained engineer. To work in Washington state, she must pass a test to receive a license to work.

The other is a trained manicurist. For her, the road to employment is much more difficult. Despite her experience, she must spend 600 hours in training. That costs up to $8,000, plus she must pay another $150 to take the test, a cost many immigrants simply cannot afford.

This absurd contrast, unfortunately, is not hypothetical.

I recently testified before the Legislature with two members of the Vietnamese community about House Bill 1361 — one an engineer, the other a cosmetologist — highlighting the high cost of Washington’s outdated occupational licenses. For skilled immigrants, it is more difficult to receive a license to be a manicurist than an engineer.

There has been a great deal of political grandstanding about immigrants. There has been less talk about how we help immigrants achieve the American dream — removing obstacles so they can share their talents and become self-sufficient.

There is bipartisan support for changing these outdated rules.

In 2015, the Obama White House released a report on the costs of occupational licenses. It noted, “lower-income workers are less likely to be able to afford the tuition” costs of receiving a license, “closing the door to many licensed jobs.” For immigrants, experience “acquired overseas does not count toward … licensing requirements.”

Those who can’t afford training have two choices. Many go into the black market, where they must charge low prices and are at risk of being reported by competitors.

Others follow the rules. There is financial aid available, but schools offering financial aid are often the most expensive, forcing students into debt due to licensing requirements.

Manicurists are not the only ones to face absurd licensing rules. In Washington state, boxing announcers — but not baseball or football announcers — must also be licensed.

Charity auctioneers also need a license. I have personally violated this rule in the governor’s mansion, when I organized a charity event for foster children. Our auctioneer did not have a license, but raised thousands of dollars. Fortunately, State Patrol officers in the room did not intervene.

Some claim licenses protect the safety of customers. A quick look shows this is not the case. Enforcement is extremely lax. When I asked numerous salon operators how often they were inspected, the typical answer was “about every three years.”

Landscape architects also claim licensing is necessary, saying the risks from improper planning could cause serious harm. One would think that such risks would necessitate significant oversight. Nope. In Washington, there was not a single investigation for misconduct in the last three years. This isn’t because there weren’t complaints. A quick look on Yelp shows many unhappy customers. This isn’t unusual. The White House report notes, “many licensing boards are not diligent in monitoring licensed practitioners.”

That, however, is exactly what those who already have state licenses want. They want high barriers to entry, reducing competition and raising costs, but low enforcement that could cause them problems.

It is time to bring occupational licensing into the iPhone age. Yelp, Angie’s List and other sites are the primary way people find and rate services. While customers may not know all health and safety rules, they watch for what they know and, when they see violations, report them, amounting to several inspections a year. Businesses are quick to fix problems people have reported online.

It is time to remove unnecessary licenses, replacing them with an online system like Yelp. This would give immigrants and others the opportunity to work, while offering customers the ability to hold them accountable for service and safety.

This system would be more fair. It would provide opportunity to skilled workers who need jobs. As one of the immigrants who testified with me said, “It is just the right thing to do.”

If we care about immigrants and the poor in our communities, it is time we removed the wall built by excessive occupational licensing.