Work&Life: Taking a license to work

  • Article by: H.J. CUMMINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2005 - 11:00 PM

This summer, as parts of Minnesota's government shut down for lack of a state budget, legislators found time to write a new law spelling out the licensure of "horse tooth floaters" -- the people who file the sharp edges off horses' teeth. Now veterinarians are practically the only people who can "float" the teeth of Minnesota horses.

This specific licensing act went largely unnoticed, but not the trend that it is part of: Legislatures across the country are passing licensing laws covering everything from construction crane operators to dental hygienists to frog farmers.

The portion of the U.S. workforce that requires licensing has grown from 5 percent in the 1950s to more than 20 percent, according to Morris Kleiner, professor of public affairs at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Kleiner counted at least 12 occupations -- including midwives, commercial animal waste technicians and agents for professional athletes -- since 1999 that the Minnesota Legislature started licensing or regulating, or adding stricter terms.

The pitch for licensing is always consumer protection, Kleiner said. The reasoning is this: More jobs are more complex, and governments must ensure that the people in them are trained and tested. People sleep better knowing that brain surgeons and child care providers are licensed.

But some of this trend is basic job protection, Kleiner says in a book to be published this year, "Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition?" Making it harder for people to get into your line of work means there are fewer of you, and the law of supply and demand means you work more and earn more.

Maybe it has gone too far, Kleiner suggests.

Jim Johnson of Sacred Heart has been a horse tooth floater for 15 years. He uses something that looks like a giant nail file called a "float" -- the name used years ago for leveling or planing tools. He swears it doesn't hurt the horse.

Johnson is likely to be grandfathered in under the law change, but not his son, Chris, also a floater. Neitheris a veterinarian.

To get licensed, Chris would have to be certified by an international equine dentistry association.

"I haven't looked into it too much except I know the last certification [program] was in England, and I'm not sure if anyone knows where or when the next one's going to be," he said.

Already limited

Minnesota law had already limited the dental work to veterinarians, said John King, executive director of Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine in Minneapolis.

The new law that spells out how non-veterinarians can qualify for a floater license opens up the work to anyone. But to the Johnsons and others who have been doing it all along, the practical effect is to make qualifying so hard that almost all of them will have to stop.

"Years ago I went to the state, and the guy said as long as I wasn't sedating horses or doing invasive procedures I was OK," Jim Johnson said. He figures he floats 1,200 to 1,300 horses a year now. He charges $70 a horse; veterinarian fees are often $100 or more.

"I've learned to do this other ways than sedating, and I get along fine with most horses," he said. "But now there are more veterinarians getting interested in teeth."

In fact, veterinarians have health and safety concerns, King explained. Floating teeth is only part of a comprehensive oral exam and vets are trained to look for other possible problems in a horse's mouth, he said. Also, horses have been hurt when floats have gotten rammed through the roof of their mouths, he said.

"If the animal is harmed in any way there's no accountability by a non-veterinarian," he said.

There was another licensing disagreement this year. Three hair braiders successfully challenged a requirement that they needed cosmetology licenses even though they do nothing but braiding, according to Lee McGrath, an attorney at the Minnesota chapter of the Institute for Justice who represented the braiders in their settlement with the state.

The new guilds

There are now 800 licensed occupations across all the United States, he said. He attributed the spurt in numbers of people in those occupations partly to new licensing and partly to the growth in already-licensed fields.

As more occupations get licensed, working people organize by profession instead of labor union, Kleiner believes. He likens the new arrangement to the guilds of Middle Ages Europe -- when weavers and stone masons, for example, organized to set standards of workmanship and control membership.

"Initially you get quality effects, but over the longer term you tend to get more of the monopoly effects," Kleiner said.

In current times, he said, there's more evidence that licensing leads to better pay than better quality in the covered occupations. On average it brings a 10 to 12 percent pay premium, he said -- comparing the incomes of an M.D. and a Ph.D. scientist who have comparable training and skills, for example.

"And although there may be benefits, it's very difficult to see how large they are or if they exist at all," Kleiner said. "Very few people are looking into the benefits vs. the costs."

What are your workplace issues? You can reach H.J. Cummins atworkandlife@startribune.com. Please sign your e-mails; no names will appear in print without prior approval.

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