A Conversation on Occupational Licensing During Public Emergencies

On Thursday, June 4th, join staff from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) for an informal conversation about occupational licensing during public emergencies. NCSL staff will be highlighting occupations that will be in high demand throughout the COVID-19 crisis.  Most states have responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by activating emergency-response licensure laws to allow volunteers from other states to practice without seeking state-specific licensure.   

According to NCSL, immigrants with work authorization and people with criminal records are sometimes limited by licensing requirements that prohibit them from practicing based on their nontraditional education or language proficiency.  Additionally, the variation in occupational licensing laws across states can impede the ability of workers to relocate across state lines. This variation disproportionately impacts employment opportunities for those moving from the job market in one state to another—namely the long-term unemployed and dislocated workers.

NCSL staff will share The Occupational Licensing Project and The National Occupational Licensing Database.  According to NCSL, "Over the last 60 years, the number of jobs requiring an occupational license, or government approval to practice a profession, has grown from about 1-in-20 to almost 1-in-4. Licensing laws are implemented with the intention of protecting the health and safety of consumers by creating barriers to employment—through testing, training, and fees—in professions determined to be sufficiently dangerous." 

NCSL staff will walk us through The National Occupational Licensing Database to show how adult educators can use it with learners to help better learn and understand licensing requirements in their state, and others.  The Database was produced by the NCSL, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and The Council of State Governments, with funding from the United States Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.  

This conversation will be hosted as an asynchronous discussion in this thread.  Our conversation will begin with an introduction and moderator question at 10AM EST, on June 4th.  The discussion will continue throughout the day.  We hope that you will join us, right here, for our conversation.

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator



Welcome to our conversation on the Occupational Licensing Project and The National Occupational Licensing Database. We’re joined by staff from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which worked with the National Governors Association and The Council of State Governments to better understand occupational licensing across the U.S. 

I’ve invited Suzanne Hultin, Iris Hentze, and Zach Herman, all from NCSL, to discuss the Occupational Licensing Project and the National Occupational Licensing Database in light of the recent changes to our economy and labor market.  You can read more about about invited panelists in their linked member profiles.

I’m going to start by asking these three some background questions about the project to give us a context to their work.  You can also read more about the project in the hyperlinks to the NCSL website.  You are invited to jump in at any point with your own questions or experiences in working with adult learners pursuing occupational licensing.  The intent is to help better inform everyone about the database as a tool you can use with your teachers and learners, the legislative changes continuing to develop around licensing, and the impact of COVID-19 on states seeking to protect their citizens, while also meeting their states’ employment needs.

Let's get started...

  • Would you tell us how NCSL and partners became aware of need for the Occupational Licensing Project, and how the project was initiated?  What were some of the issues workers faced that helped show the needs of workers and learners?
  • The Project has a focus on four different population groups that face unique challenges when it comes to obtaining licenses or moving across state lines. Would you tell us about those populations, what their challenges are and how states are helping those groups get into licensed occupations? 
  • The Project brought together a group of states to exchange ideas, hear from experts and plan out state-specific goals. Can you share what states are part of this consortium and what changes they have made?


Thank you for inviting us to participate today and we are excited to share our resources and research with this group.

A little background, in 2015 the Obama White House released a report on occupational licensing, outlining many of the barriers and discrepancies across state lines. In 2017, NCSL, in partnership with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and The Council of State Governments was awarded funding from the US Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to work with states on occupational licensing, specifically help states reduce barriers to entry in licensed occupations and improve the portability of licenses across state lines.

As outlined in the White House report, there are challenges and barriers that different population groups face when it comes to obtaining a license to work or move across state lines with a license. Our project has put together a series of reports outlining some of the challenges and policy solutions in our Barriers to Work series. Just a quick review of the some of the challenges:

-Immigrants with Work Authorization: They often face challenges applying any foreign trained experience to licensing requirements and many licensing exams are only offered in English.

-People with Criminal Records: They can be outright banned from obtaining a license due to their record regardless of the crime. Some states let licensing boards reject applicants based on “moral turpitude” clauses.

-Low-income and unemployed workers: Obtaining a license can be expensive once you add up all the licensing and exam fees.

-Veterans and military spouses: This population tends to move more often and face hurdles practicing their profession in a new state that may have different licensing requirements. Similar to immigrants, sometimes military experience does not transfer seamlessly to licensing requirements.

We have engaged with 14 states as part of our Occupational Licensing Learning Consortium. Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Maryland, Utah and Wisconsin. These states have enacted policies to address all the population groups, increase portability for licenses and reduce barriers. More actions are outlines in our Evolving State of Occupational Licensing report.

Thanks for sharing that background on the project.  Given the current employment fallout resulting from COVID-19, I wonder if Iris would share how NCSL and states are responding.  You've updated the NCSL website to include information on occupational licensing during public emergencies

  • How has the current environment caused by COVID-19 affected your work with states on making sure licensure doesn't cause unnecessary barriers to getting people working in essential jobs?  
  • How are states balancing wanting to protect the public consumer and also facilitate people getting (back) to work?  
  • Many of these licensing changes are temporary, set to repeal once the public health states of emergencies are over. Do you see some of these changes remaining in effect?  Which of these reforms might also be helpful for workers under normal circumstances?

Hi Michael, 

Thanks for the question! 

Our work with states on occupational licensing hasn’t changed as much as it’s been put on hold while they are dealing with policy issues related to the pandemic. At NCSL, our members are legislators and legislative staffers from all 50 states, so we’re really most tapped into what the legislative branch is doing. Legislatures are deliberative bodies – it takes them time to consider and debate a bill, have hearings and listen to public input. This meant that when the pandemic began, it was really the executive branch in most cases taking actions to reduce regulatory barriers for health workers and to ensure an adequate supply of these worker.

In response to COVID-19, NCSL is tracking 49 states who have made some kind of changes to the way they license essential health care practitioners. The actions generally fall into these categories:

  • increased reciprocity
  • temporary or emergency licensure
  • expedited licensure
  • licensing changes that allow retired health professionals or students to practice to some degree
  • changes that reduce the administrative burden on current licensed health workers

For both health care professions and non-health professions we know regulators, executive branch officials and legislators in all 50 states are working hard to balance public health and safety concerns with an efficient pandemic response and with labor market concerns. That looks different for every state, but at least when it comes to many of these health professions, we are seeing the above list of temporary licensing reforms deemed as striking the necessary balance between all three. 

Again, most of the actions we’ve seen so far have been driven by the executive branch or are regulatory in nature. Here at NCSL, we've tracked that since March, 35 states either had their 2020 legislative sessions postponed or decided to adjourn early due to COVID-19. We’re now seeing legislatures starting to reconvene to deal with massive COVID-related budget issues as well as to handle the typical functions of government they are responsible for every year. Some states are even calling for special sessions specifically to deal with coronavirus-related budget and policy issues. As such, we anticipate that we’re going to start to see more legislative action in this space. We don’t know what those actions will look like yet, but we do think that legislatures are going to start to play a more active role. We’ll be continually tracking these legislative actions on NCSL’s COVID-19 State Legislation Database where you can see what COVID-19 related legislation states are considering on a number of topics in different policy areas, including occupational licensing.

We haven't seen much action on other, non-health care professions who are also considered essential workers like electricians or plumbers for example. We have also been tracking the essential workers piece of this and have tracked 42 states with essential worker orders or directives. Of those 42 states, 20 defer directly to federal definitions developed by the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), while the remaining 22 states have developed their own lists. The states with their own definitions often use CISA's guidelines as a starting point, then add or subtract essential worker categories based on what makes the most sense for them. For example, in some states workers supporting religious organizations and churches are considered essential, while in some others workers who support the local cannabis industry receive the essential designation. So far we haven't seen states take any actions to temporarily modify the way they regulate some of these other non-health, licensed occupations as a result of the pandemic. 

Finally, we’re starting to see certain research organizations who are well-known in the licensing space question whether some of the regulatory changes that have occurred as a result of COVID-19 should be potentially made permanent. Organizations like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University are asking if states are recognizing one another’s licenses during the pandemic and honoring the regulatory review of their colleagues across state lines, would it be beneficial for that sort of system to continue under normal circumstances at other times? I think we’ll probably see policymakers, regulators and other stakeholders in this space start to have those conversations over the next couple months to years. Especially as it pertains to reciprocity and state’s honoring one another’s licenses, but some of these other “temporary” reforms we’ve seen could be up for discussion as well. For example, perhaps it would be beneficial under normal circumstances for licensing boards to expedite the licensing of recently graduated or close-to-graduating students in health professions to allow them to get out into the field as soon as possible. 

Let me know if you have questions! 

Thank you, Iris.  It sounds like there have been changes, and will likely be many more as states reconvene their legislative sessions to address the needs of their citizens.  As part of this project,  NCSL created a database, which I want to talk about next.  This database is a powerful tool for adult educators working in career pathways, Integrated Education and Training (IET) and apprenticeship.  It includes 48 licensed occupations, based on three criteria: licensing required in 30 or more states; requires less than a four-year post-secondary degree; and above zero projected growth in employment over the next 10 years.  You can access the database here. 

Next, Zach is going to tell us more about the database. 

  • If we can break down these 48 licensed occupations further, how many of these occupations require a two-year degree?  How many require less than a two-year degree? How many are apprenticeship-based?  
  • Would you tell us more about how the data on these 48 licensed occupations is organized? 
  • You note that data are sorted by occupation and can be viewed to compare the requirements for a selected occupation across states?  How would that look for people who want to use the database with adult learners to better understand licensing for a specific occupation, or in comparing two or more potential occupations?
  • How else could the database be useful at the practitioner level? Do you have any examples of practitioners using the database to support achieving WIOA performance goals?

Hi Michael,

Thank you for your question. In general terms, about 10 of the occupations require a 2-year degree. Thirty-four of the occupations require a high school degree or less. However, this is not universally true. Many of the occupations, depending on the state, require anywhere from no education, specific training, or a 4-year degree for the same occupation. This is especially true for the funeral occupations and real estate occupations. Just because a 2-year degree is required in one state for an occupation doesn’t guarantee another state also requires a 2-year degree.

Apprenticeship based programs are harder to track and categorize. A handful of states allow select professions to use the experience gained through an apprenticeship to count for or replace licensing requirements. This practice, however, is not widespread.

The data for this database is organized across state and occupation. You can sort your search based on select states and occupations to compare to one and other. Each occupation also has approximately 17 different categories related to requirements for licensure. These topics cover experience, training, education, minimum age, testing, costs, renewal requirements, and restrictions based on a criminal record.

The database is up to date as of 2017. We are currently updating the database to reflect recent changes to licensing through state action.

For the practitioner, the database can be an excellent starting point to examine possible career paths. By comparing across state and occupation, you can get a clearer idea of the amount of time, money, and energy an individual would need to invest to become licensed depending on the occupation and state.

Thanks for sharing some of the database's applications for practitioners.  It's also good to know that the database is currently being updated.  I'm curious how the database is being updated to better serve the needs of both policymakers and practitioners?  Will the update include any new occupations that are in high demand? 

Specifically, I'm wondering about contact tracers.  These are the individuals who are responsible for tracking transmissions of viruses, and other contagious diseases.  This is a relatively novel occupation in the U.S., but one that we are likely to see increasing interest in moving forward.  How will the database be updated to ensure that it's seen as a valuable tool for both practitioners and policymakers as we move into the future?

Hi Michael,

We have several plans to update the database. We are currently in the process of updating the database to add information on the board member composition of each state licensing board for each occupation. We are also in the processing of updating the database from 2017 requirements to 2020 requirements. We have seen a wave of legislation related to licensure across all 50 states. We don’t have any plans to add any more occupations at this time. Any new occupations would still have to meet our base criteria which includes licensed in 30+ states, requires a 4-year degree or less, and has a projected growth rate of above 0%. By focusing on occupations with the lowest existing barriers to entry, have potential for growth, and are licensed in the majority of states we hope to maximize the impact of our database. We supplement the more evergreen nature of our database by publishing regular webpages, reports, and policy briefs.

We are writing two reports on teacher licensure and childcare worker licensure as supplements to our database. Licensure for both these professions happens at the local and district level not just the state level so requirements did not mesh well with our database. Two of our most recent webpages cover licensing in times of emergency and an emerging trend in licensing called universal licensure.

Hi Michael, 

Adding to Zach’s response, we're covering more hot-button employment and licensing issues as they arise as well. Although contact tracers are not licensed at this point, we recognize how critical they are for states now and moving forward and we want to do our best to provide timely resources to legislators and legislative staff. For the contact tracing workforce we just wrote a blog on some of the state actions we’re seeing. So far, some states are ramping up their contact tracing with large-scale hiring efforts, others are reallocating current state employees from other areas and still others are partnering with private companies to implement contact tracing technology. We’ll continue to track this issue and have a webinar planned for later this month to report the latest!

Thank you, Iris. It's interesting to read how different states are working to address the need for contact tracers.  Please share with us when you have your webinar registration live.  I imagine that some reading this thread would be interested to know more about what you've found.


Thanks, Zach.  I wasn't aware that licensure for teachers and childcare workers happened at the local, district, and state levels.  These two careers, especially childcare workers, are popular with many adult learners.  Please check back with us when these reports have been published and let members know where they can access them.  

While we aren't aware of any specific examples the webpage gets hundreds of web hits a week. We know from our consortium states that policymakers, practitioners, and associations alike have utilized the information. We imagine that could be a useful resource for states working on WIOA goals.    In regards to apprenticeship programs and licensing, the states we work with recognize these two things are interconnected. The states have been trying to find ways to leverage the technical assistance and research we provide them with on licensing to the advantage of workers.
Sharing in case this is helpful to add to the discussion thread. Based at WES Global Talent Bridge, the IMPRINT coalition recently added to its national policy map a listing of states that have issued temporary executive orders across the country to remove barriers to licensure for immigrants and refugees with international health care credentials.  For additional resources related to policy and advocacy for Immigrant and Refugee Health Professionals, please visit our Opening Pathways for Immigrant and Refugee Health Professionals.

Thanks for sharing this excellent resource, Debra.  This is the type of information that we want members to share with each other, so that we can be responsive to our learners' needs as we move forward.  Thank you for being part of the conversation!

I encourage other members to share how you're educating learners about licensure issues, and supporting their chosen career pathways.

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator


I want to thank Suzanne, Iris, and Zach for joining us today for our discussion on the Occupational Licensing Project and Database.  This is important information for adult educators working in career pathways, IET, and apprenticeship programs to know.  The database is an accessible research tool that can help us easily find out about the educational requirements, costs, and portability of many of the occupational licenses that impact adult learners.  I invite members to explore the database and reach out as they have questions about occupational licensure.  I also look forward to follow-up from our colleagues at NCSL on the database update, their reports on educator licensure, and webinar on contact tracing as an emerging field.


Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator