In many ways, Alaskans have come through the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than ever. However, despite a resilient recovery, there are still some significant challenges to overcome — particularly when it comes to Alaska’s workforce. Many employers are still struggling to find qualified workers to fill needed roles. Skilled professionals in a variety of sectors are backlogged across the state, leaving anxious customers waiting for a chance to hire them and use their services. Adding insult to injury, current Alaska law makes it difficult for skilled professionals from other states to move to Alaska and use their talents here. Fortunately, a new proposal to establish a system of universal temporary licensure is being considered in the Legislature and, if it passes, could go a long way toward overcoming these challenges.
While the pandemic certainly didn’t help, many of Alaska’s workforce challenges have been building for years. Last year, 2,489 more people moved out of Alaska than into it, making 2022 the 10th year in a row in which more people have left the state than moved in. Moreover, Alaska’s working age population (defined as residents between the ages of 18 and 64) has been on a steady decline since its 2013 peak. According to a state demographer, Alaska’s working age population declined by 5.4% between 2013 and 2021, with only West Virginia and Wyoming experiencing larger declines during that period. With these challenges in mind, lifting barriers that make it more difficult for people to relocate to Alaska should be a top priority.
One of the most significant barriers faced by prospective Alaskans is an onerous occupational licensing system. Occupational licenses are the most stringent form of occupational regulation, forbidding work in the relevant occupation before various requirements, including the completion minimum levels of education, the passage of exams, and the payment of fees to the state, are met. But even when a professional has already met these requirements and maintains a license in good standing in another state, Alaska law prohibits these licensed professionals from moving here and using their skills and experience to serve Alaskans without starting all over — regardless of how many years or even decades of experience they might have.
This means that experienced and licensed professionals are unable to move to Alaska and begin working without first applying for and receiving a new license, which could entail paying fees, completing educational requirements or passing exams. Most importantly, it will cost time, leaving skilled and licensed professionals with no ability to earn a living in their chosen occupation until the new requirements are met and the Alaska license is applied for, processed and granted. This unnecessary hurdle has a significant impact on the decision about whether to move across state lines, with economic research suggesting that such barriers reduce interstate migration by as much as 7%.
The proposed universal temporary licensure system would make it significantly easier for licensed and experienced professionals to come to Alaska and utilize their talents and skills here. Rather than waiting to receive a new Alaska license, and completing all the requirements that entails before beginning work, they could apply for a temporary license before they’ve even unpacked. As long as they currently maintain a license in good standing, and the requirements to be granted that license are reasonably similar to the requirements in Alaska, they can begin working immediately. While they would still need to acquire an Alaska occupational license later on and meet the requirements that entail, they would be permitted to earn a living while working through that process.
Allowing qualified licensed professionals to move to Alaska and begin working immediately is far from a unique and untested experiment in public policy. In fact, over the last few years, 12 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming, have adopted a permanent form of universal licensing recognition — allowing licensed professionals in good standing to move into their state and continue working in perpetuity. Another six states have adopted a lighter version of universal licensing recognition or licensing recognition for military spouses.
Alaska is a beautiful state and could be a top destination for those looking to start businesses and families in a place unlike any other. Allowing licensed professionals to transfer their out-of-state licenses, even on a temporary basis, would provide an opportunity for qualified professionals to continue working with minimal interruption. This means a wider pool of applicants available to businesses and more skilled workers available to meet Alaskans’ needs. Universal temporary licensure still protects Alaskans while lifting an unnecessary barrier faced by those wanting only to continue to earn a living by serving customers in the occupation for which they have already been trained.
Ben Wilterdink is the Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute, a Visiting Fellow with the Alaska Policy Forum and a resident of Anchorage.
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