If a hairstylist moved to Omaha for her spouse's new job, she might face a bureaucratic tangle: If she held a cosmetology license in New York, which requires only 1,000 hours of training, she might not be able to work in Nebraska, where the state requires 2,100 hours.
That's the type of licensing disparity the Obama administration says is creating a drag on the economy by limiting workers' options.
Keyana Mason arrived in Bellevue a week ago with her husband, who is in the Air Force. Mason, who once taught grade school in North Carolina, said she will have to spend several months studying for the Nebraska teacher's exam before she can return to the classroom.
"If every state had the same requirement, then you wouldn't worry about having to take another state test," Mason said. "In the military you don't know where you're going next."
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Teaching is one of hundreds of occupations with licensing rules that vary — sometimes dramatically — from state to state.
In jobs as varied as bank executive, bounty hunter and plumber, the lack of licensing standardization across state lines is creating employment barriers for the nation's increasingly mobile workforce, according to a new White House report.
The time and money in meeting licensing rules can add up and, in some cases, delay or even prevent someone from entering the workforce, according to the White House. By one estimate, licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs, the administration contends.
Last year, the percentage of job seekers who relocated for new positions reached its highest level in five years, according to a report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago employment-consulting firm.
So-called tele workers, who do work by telephone that crosses state lines, also have been on the rise in the past decade. In Omaha, at Simply Well, nurses give phone health consultations to patients in all 50 states. That work creates a licensing thicket to navigate, said Elaine Murphy, the company's director of health strategy.
At Simply Well, a nurse must be licensed in the state from which a patient is calling. New nurses must be licensed in each of the 26 states that don't share reciprocity. In each state, that process can take four to six months and cost more than $100, Murphy said.
Though the company pays for the licensing, each state has a different requirement. "Some require fingerprints, background checks, passport photos," Murphy said. "It can be really involved and expensive."
To reduce licensing disparities among states, the Obama administration is urging states to trim their lists of occupations that require licenses where possible. States also should look at formulating more uniform regulations, or even adopting a less rigorous approach when it comes to licensing some jobs, the administration says.
It isn't known if Nebraska or other states will follow the administration's advice. It would be up to lawmakers, in most cases, not the licensing agencies themselves, to enact an overhaul.
Nearly one-third of American workers need a license to do their jobs, up from 5 percent in the early 1950s. The surge in licensing is due, in large part, to the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, along with the expansion of the health care and education sectors, said Morris Kleiner, economist at the University of Minnesota. Service work encompasses nearly 80 percent of all jobs.
To be sure, some occupational licenses safeguard the health and safety of consumers, and also protect their wallets, boosting the quality of some goods and services, Kleiner said.
It's hard to argue, for example, against licensing plumbers. "The plumber protects the health of the nation," said Patrick Leddy, business manager of Plumbers Local Union 16 in Omaha. Besides ensuring the safety of the water supply and sewer system, some plumbers are certified to install the medical gas systems that supply hospitals and medical clinics, Leddy said.
But whether it's necessary to license auctioneers, scrap metal dealers and motorcycle dealers while allowing snowmobile, golf cart and small recreational vehicle dealers to operate without a license might be open to debate.
Cross state lines and the variances can be even more pronounced.
A Nebraska optician who relocates to Florida could be in for a shock: In Nebraska, opticians aren't required to possess a license. The Sunshine State requires opticians to complete a 6,240hour apprenticeship before applying for a license.
Licensing requirements can be particularly onerous for military spouses, "who move 10 times more than the average American," Kleiner said. Other licensing requirements:
Bank executive officers — anyone who makes loans or investments — must obtain a license in Nebraska, a $50 initial fee with annual $15 renewals. The requirement, which dates to the 1920s, states that the applicant "be of good moral character and known integrity."
"The bank does the criminal history check and we do some background checks of our own," said Patricia Herstein, general counsel for the Nebraska Department of Banking and Financing. The banking department has denied several licenses, she said.
Iowa requires bail enforcement agents, often known as bounty hunters, to be licensed, along with adoption investigators. Nebraska doesn't have a licensing requirement for either.
Still, licenses that seem random or unnecessary at first glance aren't necessarily so: Snicker if you will, but in 1998, Iowa passed a law requiring commercial manure applicators attend mandatory training and obtain a state-issued license.
Before the law was put in place, "you would see a lot of leaks to underground drainage systems and, downstream, fish kills," said Karen Grimes, spokeswoman at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Knowing how much manure to put on a crop so there is no excess or runoff, and steering clear of environmentally sensitive areas, such as wetlands, public and private wells, is key to reducing spills, Grimes said.
Rigorous licensing requirements also can open doors in other markets: Nebraska's cosmetology graduates, with their 2,100 hours of training, can hit the ground running in other states, said Scott McCaig, director of the Capitol School of Hairstyling and Esthetics in Omaha. (In Kansas, it's only 1,500 hours.)
Hovering over a plastic hair mannequin, Aleia Winbolt, a student at Capitol, said she is halfway through the school's 14-month cosmetology program.
Is the state's 2,100-hour requirement over the top?
"No way," Winbolt said. "When I'm done here, I can work anywhere."
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