Should Locators Be Licensed?

Shortly after the Nebraska Legislature convened in January, my colleagues at the Platte Institute and I went through all introduced legislation and found LB 462 – introduced to “improve the health, welfare, and safety of Nebraskans.”

The bill has several purposes related to the One Call system for utility line location, but the most curious portion of it was the proposed individual licensure of utility locators. This proposed licensure undoubtedly spurred reference to “health, welfare, and safety” language, as the state of Nebraska has a stated policy of regulating occupations “only when necessary to protect said health, welfare, and safety.”

Who are these utility line locators, and why do they need to be licensed by the state to protect my health, welfare, and safety? I decided to do some research and here’s what I found out using a simple Google search:

1. The U.S. Infrastructure Company (USIC) appears to be the largest locator service in the country. According to one site, USIC locators make (on average) a base pay of around $15/hour, or about $31,000 per year.

2. It appears that most utility line locators learn through training offered by their employer and “on the job.”

“Licensing” in the occupational regulation world refers to something akin to a “permission slip” by the government. Without licensing, you are not allowed to legally work at the job. Working in that occupation without a license can result in both civil and criminal penalties, including fines and incarceration (depending on how the license is structured in statute).

Should line locators be licensed by some state government body (the proposal in Nebraska is that they would be licensed by the State Fire Marshal)? Or can the need for public safety be protected without licensing?

USIC, which operates in 43 of the lower 48 states, claims to have more than 8,000 field technicians, completing an average of 25,000 “locates” each hour, and reports an extremely high “no locate-related damage” rate of 99.97%.

The question we should all be asking is this: Where is the danger to public health and safety that legislators are trying to protect us from?

All this is not to say that we don’t want people who are well trained and competent conducting these location services, but rather, it appears that they are trained and competent WITHOUT being licensed in the vast majority of states.

“LICENSING” IN THE OCCUPATIONAL REGULATION WORLD REFERS TO SOMETHING AKIN TO A “PERMISSION SLIP” BY THE GOVERNMENT. WITHOUT LICENSING, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LEGALLY WORK AT THE JOB. WORKING IN THAT OCCUPATION WITHOUT A LICENSE CAN RESULT IN BOTH CIVIL AND CRIMINAL PENALTIES, INCLUDING FINES AND INCARCERATION (DEPENDING ON HOW THE LICENSE IS STRUCTURED IN STATUTE).

If there is a need to protect consumers or the utilities that contract with companies providing locator services, there are options aside from requiring licensing of individuals. And some of these are things that both consumers and utilities should want, as evidence and common sense suggest that state licensure creates a higher barrier to entry into an occupation (cost of training, testing, and payment of licensure fees, for instance), which requires employers to pay more, passing the cost on to the consumers of the service. Alternatives to consider:

1. Require companies that offer these services to register with the state and provide proof of liability insurance, should someone employed by them cause damage.

2. Expand the private certification program locate companies currently use for their employees into a state certification program that could be completed and recognized by the state via private approved courses. This wouldn’t have to prevent others from working as line locators, but it could grant a “certified line locator” status to those who went through the program.

Before we do either of those things, however, ask the question: “What’s broken in the current system that needs to be fixed?”


Laura Ebke holds a PhD in Political Science and is a former state senator in Nebraska. She currently serves as the Senior Fellow for Job Licensing with the Platte Institute for Economic Research. She can be reached at lebke@platteinstitute.org.

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