Occupational Licensing

Labor Department Launches New Licensing Tool for Military Spouses

It's no substitute for abolishing unnecessary licenses, but the effort to ease the burden on military families should call attention to this issue.


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Military spouses are 10 times more likely to move across state borders in any given year than the average American. They often face a particularly galling problem when they do: obtaining a new license for a job they were already doing.

This problem is not unique to military families, and it's a good argument for lowering licensing barriers across the board. But the frequency with which licensing disrupts employment opportunities for military spouces—35 percent of whom work in fields requiring a state permission slip, according to the American Legion—has made it an easy target for licensing reformers.

While most licensing reforms are state-level matters, this one can benefit from the involvement of the federal government. Indeed, the Obama and Trump administrations both deserve credit for working to ease the licensing burdens facing military spouses. The latest effort, announced this week by the Department of Labor, is a professional license and credential finder portal. The website offers a one-stop shop for information about state licensing requirements and details on which states will accept licenses from elsewhere.

"States should act to remove excessive regulatory barriers to work, so that our military spouses can help support their families," Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta said in a statement. "This new site highlights states' efforts to help military spouses secure good, family-sustaining jobs."

While it's no replacement for state-level efforts to reduce licensing burdens or to accept licenses from other states as valid, the website is yet another sign of the ongoing bipartisan push towards easing workers' ability to move from place to place.

As part of a 2017 feature for Reason, I told the story of Karla Mettling, whose husband Daniel was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time. Prior to being relocated to Georgia in 2016, Mettling had worked as a social worker in Virginia. But Virginia's licensing requirements didn't match up perfectly with what Georgia required, so she was left with a difficult choice after the move.

"You had to work in the state, full-time, for three years," Mettling told me. That wasn't going to be possible with her husband in the Army, where relocations are likely to happen every two to four years, on average. "After so many moves, sometimes you think, well, how much is this really worth to me?" she said.

Licensing laws also restrict economic opportunity for people who aren't being moved by the military. In a 2016 study, the Brookings Institution identified a gap in migration rates between states with high licensing burdens and those with lower licensing burdens. Two labor economists at the University of Minnesota used that data to conclude last year that more than 100,000 workers are passing up the opportunity to move each year, losing out on between $178 million and $711 million they could have collectively earned.

Janna Johnson and Morris Kleiner, those two Minnesota economists, suggested that states increase the number of licensing reciprocity agreements, like the ones that allow lawyers to practice across state lines with limited relicensing costs. That's something the Federal Trade Commission has been encouraging states to consider as well.

A number of states are doing just that, at least for military families. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, as part of a sweeping licensing overhaul proposed last month, called for greater licensing reciprocity for military spouses. "We must cut the red tape, reduce the bureaucracy and ensure overly burdensome rules and fees do not block hardworking people—especially our military spouses—from getting a good job, supporting their families and growing our economy," said Wolf, a Democrat.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, another Democrat, has similarly highlighted the role of military spouses while calling for sweeping licensing reforms in Louisiana.

Reciprocity agreements are not a substitute for the elimination of unnecessary licenses that do little to protect public safety. But the ongoing effort to reform licensing laws for military families could be an opening for a broader reform effort. The Department of Labor's new efforts is a modest step towards that larger goal.