Op-Ed: How some states are winning the battle to attract new residents

By Heather Curry and Dr. Jameson Taylor Sep 3, 2020

Washington is locked in gridlock, there’s an election on the horizon, and our country is desperate to get out of the COVID-19 economic slump. The good news is that states don’t have to wait for Congress to break its logjam. There’s something we can do right now to put Americans back to work, and it won’t cost a penny. In fact, it’ll save money by cutting red tape.

In nearly every state, occupational licensing boards spend countless hours evaluating the qualifications of out-of-state applicants who already hold a valid license in another state. If differences are found, these same boards frequently require incoming workers to complete additional training or testing before issuing a license to a new resident.

This means that professionals of all kinds are required to put their careers on hold by jumping through bureaucratic hoops just to prove that they can do a job that they have already been doing safely and productively in another state.

In some states, the barriers are so great that some folks don’t even bother getting a new license. They just stop working. Others just stay put because they can’t risk moving to a new state that might not recognize their license. This is unfair and unreasonable and can be disastrous for workers and their families.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. Rather than sideline American workers, state legislatures have been considering reforms that would recognize out-of-state occupational licenses. First passed in Arizona in 2019, “The Breaking Down Barriers to Work Act” encourages professionals to apply for and be granted a license based on the qualifications they have already obtained in another state. Applicants are eligible to apply if they have held a license for at least a year, are in good standing, and have met the testing or training requirements of the initial state. This reform is good for workers seeking to seamlessly get back to work when they cross state lines. It is also good for states looking to attract talented, dedicated professionals.

Early in the pandemic, governors across the country realized the negative impact that onerous licensing requirements were having on the mobility of health care workers seeking to help areas hardest hit by COVID-19. Some governors expanded health care access for vulnerable patients by suspending these licensing regulations, making it easier for nurses and physicians to cross state lines. These reforms can be made permanent through universal recognition, ensuring states are prepared in the event of future challenges and that workers are not caught up in regulatory limbo.

How do we know this is the right path? In Arizona, universal licensing recognition is already working. Arizona’s reform offers a real-time case study of the immediate benefits of this approach to licensure. Since the law went into effect in late 2019, over 1,600 professionals have used it to obtain a license to work in fields ranging from mechanical engineering to cosmetology to dentistry. Not coincidentally, Arizona is now a top destination state for qualified professionals looking for a better place to work, raise a family and retire.

This year, more than 24 states introduced bills that would further worker freedom by recognizing out-of-state licenses. Of these, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri and Utah joined Arizona, Montana and Pennsylvania in adopting universal licensing recognition.

Other states are testing the waters by recognizing out-of-state licenses held by members of the military, including spouses and dependents. These states are Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio. Mississippi’s law is unique in that it also provides a pathway to licensure through work experience, a feature that benefits workers moving in from states that don’t license certain professions or activities at all.

As many Americans continue to face economic uncertainty as a result of the pandemic, state lawmakers should act quickly to eliminate unnecessary regulatory barriers that are preventing qualified professionals from earning a living. Especially as many workers are considering long-term telecommuting opportunities, rural states have a unique opportunity to attract new residents licensed in other states. Policymakers who act fast will win out. Those who wait will lose residents to states like Arizona, or even, Mississippi.

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