Free Enterprise

Are Non-Native English Speakers at a Disadvantage in Occupational Licensing?

Many immigrants and other nonnative English speakers see the United States and the prospect of securing a profitable career with rose-colored glasses. It is the land of opportunity where anyone has the potential to advance their socioeconomic standing and better their situation. This idealized America is not just a dream; it’s a promise this country has made. 

Unfortunately, this commitment falls woefully short because of state governments that exert control over local labor markets. Specifically, occupational licensing regulations implemented by these bodies create large hindrances to individuals obtaining a profitable and stable career in their desired profession. Nonnative speakers are even more negatively impacted in their pursuit of the American dream than the general public due to onerous occupational licensing regulations. 

Such regulation creates so many impediments that for some individuals who are not native English speakers it could be seen, in some situations, as making more sense to give up on obtaining an occupational license in their field or find work in a field not requiring licensure.

This consequence is clearly outlined in recent research from the Center for Growth and Opportunity. Their research findings indicate immigrants are 34 percent less likely to obtain occupational licenses than citizens of the United States. 

One primary reason why occupational licensing creates such large barriers for immigrants and nonnative speakers is that many applicants must pass a licensing exam to prove they have the necessary skills and knowledge to safely perform a profession. This initially seems to make sense. Yet, these licensing exams often are not compatible with those that are nonnative English speakers.

This is seen in the state of Arizona. This state’s law mandates that those hoping to become licensed massage therapists who are not native English speakers demonstrate “communication proficiency” through an English test. Test takers must obtain scores that are above the median score for the entire population of test takers —a group that is largely made up of native English speakers and those who obtained some form of higher education. 

In other states, licensing exams create barriers in other ways. For example, some exams are only given in English, some don’t allow a translator, some don’t allow for dictionaries, and some have questions worded in a way that can be hard for nonnative English speakers to interpret correctly. 

Despite the disturbing prevalence of these practices, various states are taking action to ameliorate the consequences of troubling exam laws. In Nevada, California, Texas, and Washington State, some occupational licensing exams can be administered in multiple languages and fifteen states allow test takers to utilize interpreters or dictionaries. 

States must continue diligent work in the realm of occupational licensing to ensure exams that are a prerequisite for licensure are based on a model of equality and fairness that creates a level playing field for all individuals.