Is mandatory licensing of certain professions doing more harm than good?


Maine is one of twenty-two states that currently require occupational licensing for sign language interpreters. Though this measure may seem appropriate and even necessary in order to ensure those who rely on interpreters are receiving quality services, mandatory licensing can actually restrict the supply of much-needed interpreters without providing tangible benefits to consumers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for interpreters in the United States is expected to increase by 18 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is 11 percent faster than the average growth of all occupations. Diane Roebuck, a teacher in the American Sign Language program at Scott Community College in Illinois, says, “We just don’t have enough interpreters to fill all of them [the requests] and with all the baby boomers retiring, we’re going to be struggling very hard to keep up with the demand.”

Since Maine is the oldest state in the nation, and with the elderly population quickly becoming the largest user of interpreting services, the number of interpreters needed to support our aging population is likely going to reach an all-time high.

At the same time, Maine’s requirements for licensure make it more costly and time-consuming to work as an interpreter here than in most states. Even professionals who have completed 100 hours of training and who are certified must still go through the additional hurdle of paying an annual fee of $100 or $200, in addition to paying for a criminal background check in order to obtain a license. If these requirements were really necessary to ensure a minimum level of professional competence, why have the majority of states decided to regulate this profession by other means, if regulate it at all?

Licensing serves to reduce competition from new practitioners seeking to enter a profession and therefore keeps prices, rather than excellence, high. Moreover, due to the burdensome requirements, those who already have a license do not have as much of an incentive to maintain high standards because licensing costs alone serve as a deterrent to potentially excellent interpreters who are unable to legally work in the state without obtaining a license.

So what can be done to make it less difficult for competent interpreters to work in Maine while maintaining high standards?

As it turns out, there are multiple alternatives to licensing that would be less taxing to prospective practitioners and open the market for competition, thereby connecting those who rely on various goods and services to competent professionals.

For example, instead of requiring that candidates go through the costly and time-consuming process of getting licensed, candidates could voluntarily choose to increase their market value by acquiring a certification while consumers themselves could choose whom to employ at their own discretion.

But since certification from a private entity is required to be a licensed interpreter in Maine, licensing serves little purpose other than to generate revenue for the state by mandating a measure of quality that consumers can judge for themselves prior to employing an interpreter. In this sense, the licensing hurdles imposed by the state are duplicative and unnecessary.

Opening the market and allowing competition to dictate quality would benefit both consumers and qualified professionals by giving the former the freedom to choose whom to hire and the latter the chance to demonstrate their expertise without encountering costly administrative red tape.


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