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President's Message 

Bruce Pfeiffer

Licensing: Hindrance or Good Business?

In a recent editorial published in the Wichita Eagle, Mark Holden, General Counsel and Senior Vice President for Koch Industries, made an impassioned plea to the people of Kansas to “break down barriers to opportunity for the least fortunate.” The gist of his commentary pointed to occupational licenses, such as those found in our trades, as the main reason “low-income job seekers and budding entrepreneurs” are unable to find meaningful employment.

There is no doubt that his proposition to roll back “burdensome occupational licensing regulations” as a means to break down barriers for the least fortunate would provide potential businesspersons an opportunity to hang out their shingle. “To make matters more difficult,” he continues, “you often have to pay a significant sum money or spend months — and sometimes years — in training before beginning your career.” He considers apprenticeships and occupational specific education nothing more than an opportunity for special interest groups to “handicap competitors” or impede career opportunities for disadvantaged job seekers.

Holden emphasized in his article that at one time only lawyers, doctors, and airline pilots were required to be licensed. I agree that these professions should require advanced education and training. I, for one, would not want an unqualified individual representing me in a court of law, treating me for a physical ailment or taking the controls of a plane. Holden, quoting information provided by the Institute of Justice, states that now “no fewer than 34 of the 100 most common low- and moderate-income jobs in the state require licenses, including barber, manicurist, or cosmetologist.” While cutting hair or doing nails may not carry the same prestige as an attorney, doctor, or pilot, I contend that education and training is critical for any individual providing services to the American public; having under-qualified persons in these professions goes beyond the potential of receiving a subpar haircut or inferior manicure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a simple visit to the beauty salon can result in a range of maladies ranging from simple funguses, such as ringworm or tinea capitis, to serious illnesses like Hepatitis B and C. Licensing may not eliminate the possibility of being exposed to one of these conditions, but it will at least ensure that the provider of these services has received minimal knowledge of sanitation practices to prevent them.  

In recent years, trade licenses and associated apprenticeship programs have been under fire by lawmakers throughout the country. Many jurisdictions, including the state of Kansas, have pared back minimum apprenticeship requirements to the point where they are nearly non-existent. A few of those same jurisdictions have added insult to injury by revoking licensing, as well. Citizens living in those parts of the country no longer have the assurance that the individuals installing plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical systems in their homes and business are actually qualified to do the work.    

While some in our trades have embraced the reduced apprenticeship requirements and elimination of licenses as a means to bolster the number of “tradespersons” they can place into the workforce, others still see the benefits of transferring skills from one generation to another through a meaningful apprenticeship. Trade unions such as the UA (United Association – Plumbers and Pipefitters) and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) have not wavered in their commitment to provide well-trained, highly skilled mechanics for the construction needs of the American people. Each organization still requires a five-year apprenticeship, consisting of formal education and on-the-job training, prior to permitting trainees to do work without supervision. Needless to say, the discrepancy between the abilities of the trained and undertrained is ever widening.      

Licensing did not come into existence to provide existing businesses an opportunity to “handicap competitors and innovative startups.” Accreditation of businesses through licensing provides consumers verification that those businesses and their employees are minimally proficient in their chosen field, have adequate insurances, and are familiar with applicable health and safety regulations. It is truly distressing to think that there is actually a faction in this county that considers education and suitable training a detriment to employment. At one time America could boast that we had the most skilled workforce in the world. It’s time that we reclaimed that position.