BY PAUL LAZARO – With approximately 6.6 percent of Hawaii’s labor force unemployed, the Hawaii State Legislature needs to revise the state’s complex certification system to make it easier for people to change professions and get back to work.
When specific industries shift with a changing economy, the unemployed become re-employed by changing professions, sometimes for a short period of time while things cool down, other times by changing professions for good. For example, when ice haulers lost their jobs after the advent of the refrigerator, those same ice haulers had the opportunity to rejoin the economy by changing professions and becoming refrigerator repairmen or salesmen. Today, however, Hawaii’s complex certification process discourages the unemployed from shifting into new occupations.

Perhaps the largest difficulty associated with the Hawaii’s occupational licensing laws is the cost and time associated with obtaining certifications. While board examination fees may range from only $30 to $80, many licensing procedures require prospective professionals to take expensive classes before even taking an exam. For example, the average cost of a required massage therapy course in Hawaii $3,900. Not exactly chump change for someone collecting a maximum $523 dollars in unemployment a week.

What’s more, if someone passes a certification exam, and it is later discovered that he or she has not completed a mandated course the government revokes his or her license. We can conclude from this tragic standard that (1) It’s possible to pass the examination without taking an expensive course, in which case people should be given that option, or (2) The test is not an accurate illustration of one’s ability as a practitioner, meaning Hawaii’s state government is certifying that some people are proficient in an area of expertise in which they are not.

Overall, the state of Hawaii’s certification system is mired in red tape. Rather than facilitate economic growth by making it easier for the unemployed to adopt a different profession, the unemployed are given a limited choice set: use what little money you have to pay for an unnecessary course, continue on unemployment and wait for the economy to rebound, or take a lower paying job. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are common sense solutions to this red tape nightmare.

The most obvious alternative to the lengthy government certification process is to eliminate the government’s monopoly and open the certification process to market forces. By allowing private certification companies to compete with government certifications, an array of new certification options would arise.

For example, in the case of massage therapy, employers could decide what level of certification they require for employment, and even develop a certification process of their own. Rather than require that a massage therapist have the current standard 400 hours of experience, employers could require 200 hours of experience and provide on the job training. In the end those massage therapists who demonstrate talent will attain more experience and likewise greater clientele and compensation.

This is not to say the liberalized certification market would leave the less skilled massage therapists out in the cold. Easier movement through professions is not limited to entrance into professions; it also applies to changing professions. If government limited its role in the certification process, people would have the option to invest in low cost introductory courses without fear of losing significant resources (good news if you’re broke). In other words, people would have greater mobility when it comes to choosing their calling.
Overall, if Hawaii’s legislators were truly concerned with assisting the unemployed, they would open the certification process to the market. But until that happens good luck to those waiting to fill out paperwork at the Professional and Vocational Licensing authority, and remember to try not to show up on a Furlough Friday.

Paul Lazaro is a Summer Fellow at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonpartisan research organization committed to the principles of free markets, individual liberty and limited, responsible government