In the United States, occupational licensing and certification is largely a function of state government. There are literally hundreds of occupations and professions that are regulated in one form or another, but not every state regulates every occupation. Licensing requirements for the same occupation or profession often vary from state to state. Individuals licensed for an occupation in one state may not qualify for licensure in another.

In some cases the federal government has passed legislation that requires states to set up licensure or certification programs for specified occupations. In these instances there is a greater degree of uniformity among the different states regarding licensing or certification requirements. Real estate appraisers, asbestos contractors and workers, wastewater and water treatment plant operators, and pesticide operators are some of the occupations that are currently licensed or certified at the state level as a result of federal legislation.

Some occupations are licensed at the federal level. These are typically occupations that take individuals into more than one state, such as airline pilots, who are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or that are subject to federal laws, such as air traffic controllers. Many water transportation occupations are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Coastal states and those adjacent to large bodies of water may also regulate water transportation occupations. Generally, state regulations must be at least as restrictive as the applicable federal regulations.


There are essentially three levels of state regulation of occupations and professions: licensing, certification, and registration. While these terms are used interchangeably on occasion and definitions are not strictly adhered to, it is useful at least to recognize the three levels of occupational regulation.

Licensing is the most restrictive form of occupational regulation. When states issue licenses under licensure laws, it is illegal for individuals to engage in the licensed profession or occupation without a license. Physicians, nurses, and attorneys are examples of professions that are licensed and heavily regulated by state governments. States usually administer occupational licensing through independent boards, with a separate board set up for each licensed profession.

Certification is a somewhat less restrictive form of state regulation. Like licensing, certification requires individuals to meet certain standards that have been established by the state. Uncertified individuals, however, are often allowed to engage in the same profession as long as they do not present themselves to the public as certified practitioners. This type of state regulation affords "title protection" to certified individuals. For example, if psychologists were certified but not licensed as defined above in a certain state, then uncertified individuals could not advertise themselves as psychologists or use psychologist as a title. Uncertified individuals, however, could practice under a different title and provide clients with services similar to those of a certified psychologist.

The least restrictive form of state regulation is registration. Registration usually involves providing a state agency with one's name and address and paying a registration fee. Minimal standards—or no standards at all—might have to be met, such as age, citizenship, and moral character. For public protection the state agency would maintain a registry of all practitioners who have registered with it. In some cases the agency may handle complaints and be able to take disciplinary action.


Whatever level of state regulation is in place for a particular occupation, those regulations have the force of law. They are mandatory. Individuals engaging in occupations that are regulated must comply with the state's laws, rules, and regulations governing those occupations. Such regulations not only set standards for individuals entering an occupation, they also usually spell out acts and conduct that are illegal and subject to disciplinary action.

Individuals in many occupations may have the opportunity to become certified on a voluntary basis. Voluntary certification is typically administered by a trade or professional association. In the absence of state regulation, voluntary certification enables a profession to set its own standards. While certification standards vary from profession to profession, they usually involve having some experience in the field and demonstrating competency or proficiency by passing a written and/or practical certification examination. Certified individuals are then allowed to use a certain title, designation, or other indication that they are in fact certified by a nationally recognized professional association. Acupuncturists, social workers, automotive mechanics, and athletic trainers are a few of the occupations that have voluntary certification.


If there is one principle behind the maze of state occupational regulations, it is that certain occupations and professions must be regulated in order to protect public health, safety, and welfare. Licensing and certification protect the public from being victimized by individuals who are either incompetent or unethical. As noted above, licensing agencies have disciplinary authority. Their rules and regulations have the force of law. Complaints from the public can be directed to the appropriate licensing agencies. Practitioners who have violated the standards of conduct as set forth in the rules and regulations of the licensing agency may be subject to fines and other penalties including loss of license.

Occupational licensing and certification is not without its costs, however. While the public may be protected from incompetent and unethical practitioners, strict licensing and certification standards may have the unfortunate effect of causing shortages of qualified professionals in certain geographic areas or in certain professions. Often the costs associated with obtaining the necessary education and meeting other licensing and certification requirements are passed along to consumers in the form of higher fees.


Occupational licensing and certification is in a constant state of flux. It is also a highly decentralized activity that is typically spread out among many different state departments, divisions, agencies, and boards. Determining what regulations apply to a specific business, profession, or occupation can often mean contacting several different state agencies to determine who has jurisdiction. Fortunately, professional and trade associations are often good sources of information about state licensing requirements for specific occupations.

Businesses need to know what occupational licensing and certification regulations apply to them. These licenses are usually separate from those business licenses and permits required to operate in a particular state. Building contractors, funeral home directors, private investigators, barbers, cosmetologists, engineers, architects, investment advisers, plumbers, and electricians are just some of the many occupations and businesses that are subject to separate occupational licensing and certification requirements in many states.

[ David P. Bianco ]


Bianco, David P. Professional and Occupational Licensing Directory. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.

Burch, Audra D.S. "Florida May Remove Licensing Requirements for Seven Professions," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, 30 January 1996.

Guglielmo, Wayne J. "Medical Boards: Facing a Disciplinary Dilemma." Medical Economics, 10 May 1999.

Mills, Patti A., and Joni J. Young. "From Contract to Speech: The Courts and CPA Licensing Laws, 1921-1996." Accounting, Organizations and Society, April 1999.

Pare, Michael. Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

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