A good job with a stable employer who values you can be a hard thing to come by in Montana. But now two organizations are not only seeking to make that more difficult, but may also put some people out of a job with legislation they are planning to propose for the 2017 Montana Legislature.
The Big Sky Veterinary Technician Association (BSVTA) and the Montana Veterinary Medicine Association (MVMA) have circulated pieces of draft occupational licensing legislation for comment by local veterinary practices.
The BSVTA claims on its website that its effort has “the personal support of every member of the State Board of Veterinarians,” though the Board has not taken an official position. This legislation would have every vet tech in the state pass a certification exam to demonstrate proficiency in his or her trade. If things ended there, it might not be so concerning.
However, the legislation would require a two-year education program specifically in this area of study to even sit for the exam, and only those with six years of clinical experience at the time of the bill’s passage would be permitted to take the exam without said education. And even then, they would only have two years from the legislation’s effective date to sit for—and pass—the exam.
The effects of such licensing laws have been shown to reduce opportunities in the job market, for young people especially, and create barriers to entry that cause artificial labor supply shortages, driving up costs for business owners. The net effect, according to a report from the Obama administration, is that “licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs nationwide and raise consumer expenses by over one hundred billion dollars.”
Despite mounting evidence suggesting caution before implementing licensing, the MVMA and BVSTA seek to buck conventional wisdom on the matter. And their rationale is questionable at best.
Some veterinarians say that they must go out of state to recruit vet techs. They omit a key fact: their unwillingness to train employees themselves. The decision whether a tech needs to be trained internally or to seek out training for themselves should reside solely in the freely established employer-employee relationship, and not be dictated by legislative mandate.
Veterinarians themselves are the people most qualified to determine if the skill set of a given applicant suits the needs of their practice. If they want a trained technician, they should recognize the premium associated with hiring one. An aspiring technician is the best person to decide whether an education in a specific field is worth the potential return in wages, and whether they can afford to make that investment in a career without an actual guarantee of employment.
And while lobbyists are trying to force the state to act as an intermediary and decide the minimum qualifications of each applicant, they also seek to dictate what activities the employee will be permitted to perform after being hired. The draft legislation includes a list of duties that are solely the purview of a licensed veterinary technician, despite the fact that hundreds of people have been performing these tasks adequately for decades in Montana without licensing.
In fact, though the BSVTA could not be reached for comment, there is no evidence suggested by the drafters of this legislation that any harm has been done to date by a lack of mandatory certification. In fact, the studies referenced earlier show that far more harm may be done by passing such legislation.
Imagine working at a veterinary clinic as an assistant for two years and demonstrating the competencies necessary to be a successful technician. In the current system, those who head the practice can take that training on themselves and maintain an employment relationship with their rising star.
In the new system, proposed by this legislation, not only could the veterinarians not allow their budding staff members to perform certain duties, even in the context of training, but they would also be required to attend classes at significant cost, and may not be able to remain employed while taking time to do so.
I suppose it will be surprising to few people as to why this legislation is suddenly necessary. In 2015, the private education company PIMA Institute opened a veterinary program at UM Western in Dillon, and boasted that its first crop of students numbered 24.
It indicated that the expectation would be that 80 students would eventually attend the program at capacity. And what is the best way to ensure that your classes are full? By getting the state to say that no one can hold a job in the field without your degree. When contacted, PIMA quoted the cost for this two-year program at a whopping $31,000.
Given that $31,000 price tag, one would hope that the job itself would allow vet techs to easily recoup the value of their investment. However, the Department of Labor reports that the median income of individuals in this job nationwide is just over $15/ hour. Here in Montana, the average wage trends slightly lower than that, $14.48/hour, and the total jobs number slightly over 400.
A big concern is that after five years of full capacity classes at PIMA, every existing vet tech job would already be spoken for (never mind those grandfathered in or already possessing certifications). But the high up-front costs also mean it is likely that the average student would require financial aid, and be left with significant student loan burdens.
Yet private institutions that deliver technical training like PIMA does are already under fire for over-leveraging student loans and financial aid. Recently, ITT Technical Institute was placed under strict financial oversight from the Department of Education, while in the previous year, Corinthian Colleges have closed up shop entirely—ending classes for 16,000 students—because of issues with finance practices. And while you can search PIMA’s website for hours on end and never find a dollar amount for tuition, front and center on their page is how to go about the financial aid process.
Were this just a case where private occupational associations were trying to improve the caliber of their trade through elective education and voluntary standards, that would be one thing. Instead, what we really have here is a private organization, which has secured access to public facilities for their endeavors, influencing lobbying groups (a member of which is actually employed by the PIMA program as an instructor) to secure an ongoing supply of business for their institution via government mandate.
The cost of offering this guarantee to PIMA is borne by the taxpayer, via the student loans and financial aid that a student almost certainly would need to even enroll, and the increased charges passed along to consumers by veterinarians facing labor shortages as a result of unnecessary licensing requirements.
Rather than demonstrate the value of this certification to applicants through the quality and career path of the program’s graduates, these organizations would have the state intervene on their behalf an assure them a steady supply of enrollees, while also compromising the continued employment of those already successfully performing the job.
We cannot afford more regulatory interference in labor markets, nor can we afford to further handicap our youth or require that they take on significant debt to obtain viable employment. When you hear people complain about the influence of corporations in politics, you need look no further than this example of the insidious sway of occupational licensing.
Andrew Forcier is the Libertarian candidate for House District 57 and is a human resources consultant with more than a dozen years of experience in both entrepreneurial and well-established organizations.
Disclosure: The author’s wife is currently employed as a veterinary technician and is enrolled in a program that competes with the PIMA program at one-quarter of the cost.