I agree with Karin that licensing is no panacea. However, that being said, there are several advantages to requiring licensing for personal trainers and other fitness professionals. One of the most promising advantages is the perception it would bring to our industry from the “outside world.” Like it or not, the public (and by “public” I mean consumers, physicians and other potential sources of referrals, the payers including health insurance companies and others) rely on “indicia of professionalism” in an industry. Things such as licensing, standardized testing and knowledge etc. like it or not, are what many “outsiders” use to determine the level of professionalism in any field. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I do know and understand that if our industry is ever going to improve its position in the minds of those who can purchase our services or refer others to us from a clinical perspective, licensing may be the single-most important step in that process.
I’m big on analogies, so let’s consider a profession like accounting. You have a wide-range of professionals in this field, each of them with knowledge of basic accounting principles, but not each of them is perceived equally in the minds of the consumer. They can include bookkeepers, accountants and CPA’s. In this hierarchy, there is little doubt that the licensed and certified accounting professional (CPA) is viewed as the most knowledgeable and respected professional in this hierarchy; due in part to the fact that they have “proven” their knowledge and skill through a required and recognized licensure and certification. Does this automatically mean that a very experienced bookkeeper can’t do your accounting just as well? Probably not! Nor does it mean that the bookkeeper is incompetent or not knowledgeable. What is does mean is that the CPA has acquired a certain level of knowledge and skill that is objective and can be viewed by the public and those who hire this individual as some indicator of a certain base level of skill and knowledge (as well as professionalism, code of ethics etc.) that the purchasing public can rely upon.
Licensure in our field does not necessarily equate to preventing entry level trainers. Depending on how it’s structured, you can have entry level practitioners who obtain the basic knowledge and skills required for practicing in our field (similar to how many States treat massage therapist), AND require a certain level of recognized and approved continuing education to maintain the license. What this would do for our industry is help ensure that most or all trainers in whatever particular jurisdiction are practicing on a somewhat “level playing field” which in turn helps to ensure a certain level of quality of service. As it stands today, our field is very fragmented, and with so many certifying agencies, it’s truly a crap-shoot for consumers to figure-out the knowledge and skill level of whomever they decided to use as a trainer. There are many, many wonderful and knowledgeable trainers out there – people who are dedicated to our field and to learning both skill-based and knowledge-based information to make their practice better. But there are also trainers out there who will always do the MINIMUM that is required to continue to practice, and unless someone requires and identifies a certain standard for what that “minimum” is, the public has no real sense of what knowledge and skill level a particular trainer has.
This is a very interesting topic with no one right answer, and many, many different points of view. The debate will continue, and, like in many other health-related fields (think of massage therapy for example) the practitioners in those fields come from a wide-variety of educational and practical backgrounds, however, it wasn’t until they became licensed that their practices became more mainstream and accepted by payers, referral sources and the public.