Licensing requirements hurt workers of a ‘certain age’

Joanne Butler Contributor
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With all the talk about how Americans need to keep working longer to shore up Social Security, we’ve overlooked the bureaucratic hurdles that discourage work at older ages.  Absurd licensing requirements pose a major barrier to entry and limit choices for those contemplating a change to a job with more flexibility and opportunities for part-time work.

Let’s say Jim is 56 years old and has been a human resources manager for decades.  He’s thinking about becoming a counselor as a transitional job that he could do in his sixties.  But when Jim looks at the licensing requirements for a social worker, he’s flabbergasted.  His business degree and professional experience are irrelevant to the licensing experts; they say that Jim must spend several years getting a pricey Masters in Social Work (which frequently involves classes in “community organizing” and “social action”) plus nearly two more years of clinical experience.

Unlike a traditional twenty-something student, Jim’s internal calculus tells him he’s got a short time horizon to invest in a new career.  While we all enjoy news stories of 82-year-old great-grandparents who are champion swimmers, the fact is that no one knows exactly how long they will live — or when chronic illness will hit.  Investing four years in a new career — that may last only a few years — doesn’t make much sense.  It makes even less sense when you realize that much of the investment is unnecessary.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  About twenty years ago, state boards of education were shamed by their inability to grant teachers licenses to Teach for America participants from Princeton and other top schools because they hadn’t taken education classes.  This, combined with concerns over their ability to replace retiring waves of teachers, led states to create alternative paths for obtaining teaching licenses.  Virginia, for example, has a “career switcher” program, for people with a bachelor’s degree plus at least five years of work experience.  The process is fast-paced; career-switchers can begin teaching (and getting paid) after just one year of night classes plus some classroom field experience.  Individuals take the licensing test after their first year of teaching.

Contrast the career-switcher program for teachers with licensing requirements for social workers.  Is being a social worker more challenging and intellectually demanding than being a high school teacher?  Or are we looking at a protection racket on behalf of social work instructors — one that excludes educated, experienced persons seeking a new direction in their work lives?

Once concerns about the safety and protection of consumers have been addressed, states should not be in the business of throwing up roadblocks to older workers.  The incoming Congress can help states by pointing out where roadblocks exist, and spotlighting those states adopting more flexible and reasonable means for licensing.

If Americans need to be working longer for the financial health of our nation, it’s not enough to move the Social Security goal posts.  We must end burdensome and unnecessary regulations that limit opportunities for everybody, but most especially, for folks of a “certain age.”

Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at joanne-butler@comcast.net.