Current Events

Why 21st Century Learning Could Fix Occupational Licensing

Written by Lenny DeFranco

Last week, the White House released an economic report that criticized the proliferation of occupational regulation in the United States. The administration surprised many by taking a downright libertarian tone on the issue, which it described as an unnecessary inhibitor to competition and employment opportunity. “The current licensing regime in the United States creates substantial costs, and often the requirements for obtaining a license are not in sync with the skills needed for the job,” the report said. It proposed a series of best practices to solve the issue, mostly centering on the need for “21st century legislation” that limited licensing regulation to areas concerning “legitimate public health and safety concerns.”

President Obama

President Obama’s White House surprised many by advocating deregulation in job licensing

The report resonated with economists who have long claimed that overly burdensome licensing requirements have, in many cases, moved beyond the point of consumer protection and become self-serving mechanisms for industry groups to prevent job competition. They say the solution to the issue lies more in tightening up the licensing legislation than in improving the process of obtaining a license itself.

But until the political will to mount a regulatory overhaul materializes, better training would alleviate some of the problems that the White House report detailed. There will always be occupational licenses, so there will always be training programs that lead to a license. Those programs are just as due for revival as the laws that authorize them. The same way we need 21st century legislation to pass smart, modern laws, we also need 21st century learning to teach job skills and compliance training that fits the modern workplace. In addition, better training would change the equation of what else needs to improve about the regulatory regime. Here’s how.

Outcomes would actually improve. One of the main problems with current licensing requirements is that they don’t seem to make outcomes materially better. In 10 of the 12 studies that the White House report’s authors reviewed, stricter licensing correlated with no improvements in quality.

Better training would change that. Engaging, intelligent learning leads to improved outcomes in any skilled endeavor. According to a 2014 Department of Labor report, adult learners fared well learning job skills from “flexible and innovative training and postsecondary education approaches,” not legacy methods. With an approach that is intelligently designed and “closely related to a real job or occupation,” licensing training would tangibly improve job performance and make the process more worthwhile.

Getting a license would be more efficient. Time spent learning is a poor proxy for effort and aptitude when it comes to learning. Unfortunately, many unsophisticated, data-starved methods of traditional training continue to evaluate learners based on their input of time. As a result, licensing processes often take longer than they need to. The average license in California takes 550 days to obtain. It takes 16 months of training to become a cosmetologist in some states.

A modern approach to learning is more efficient. Microlearning is a method that uses short bursts of learning to teach huge topics to whatever depth the instructor wishes. It’s more efficient in terms of time elapsed, but also by its method of reducing forgotten content through techniques like spacing, repetition, variation, and more. Microlearning would make licensing processes available to many different types of people while cutting down the time spent doing them.

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A horse wrangler in California, where the average license takes 550 days to obtain.

The really important stuff would be aligned. The White House report suggests “limiting licensing requirements to those that address legitimate public health and safety concerns,” at the same time as “harmonizing regulatory requirements as much as possible” between states.

One way to accomplish both objectives would be to create a standardized, nationwide curriculum of essential safety and public health content that every licensed professional, no matter which board or industry accredited them, would have to demonstrate mastery of. It would form a useful regulatory baseline that could replace redundant training and expedite a good-faith effort to cut down on the amount of learning that license-seekers had to complete.

Over-regulation in the job market has roots that even the most effective training wouldn’t affect. Critics allege that job protectionism—a “guild mentality”—is the real reason for onerous, expensive licensing requirements. The White House more charitably blames misguided good intentions in the legislative process. But any time there’s a need to reimagine how accreditation is done, there exists the need for a reimagining of the entire training process. The whole world is updating the way it works and learns. Eventually, everybody will need to jump aboard.

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Photo credits: “Barack Obama” by Gage Skidmore and “Mini Appaloosa Wrangling” by ClatieK are licensed under CC BY 2.0.