Margaret Busse: Unleashing the power of Utah’s workforce through systematic licensure review and reform

Review of Utah’s licensing requirements will help boost the economy,

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The State Capitol in Salt Lake City at the end of the legislative session, early Saturday, March 5, 2022.

Utah’s economy is booming. Our state is continually ranked as one of the best places to start a business. With such a quality of life, it’s no surprise people want to live and work here, but for more than 300,000 of Utah’s skilled workers, a professional license can become a barrier to enter the Utah workforce.

What is Utah doing to make sure those who want to work in the state are able to more easily?

This summer a new office – the Office of Professional Licensure Review – will begin its work as an innovative part of the state of Utah’s efforts to promote economic advancement and streamline government. Housed in the Utah Department of Commerce, this office will review every professional license type in the state on a regular basis, analyzing whether the scope of practice is appropriate and the specified qualifications are actually needed. With this new office, Utah will blaze a trail as the most robust office of its kind in the country.

Professional licensure plays an important role in our workforce and economy, regulating what certain professionals are allowed to do and how long they must train to do it. Real estate agents, barbers, contractors, and plumbers, just to name a few, all require a state license to do work in Utah. Just like drivers’ licenses protect the safety of drivers and passengers on roads, and food permits help keep people from getting ill from tainted restaurant food, professional licensure exists to ensure public safety. For example, hiring an electrician or doctor without the requisite training that licensure ensures could result in a consumer harm.

But some of these requirements are outdated. Data released in 2015 shows that close to a quarter of all U.S. professions require some kind of license, an increase of 500% from the 1950s. It’s time to reexamine these requirements..

First, overburdensome licensure requirements limit opportunity to enter a profession. That can unfairly limit career opportunities and result in higher costs affecting the underprivileged most acutely.

Second, as professions change and adapt to advancements within individual industries, licensure requirements should evolve in tandem. For instance, 10 years ago, most states had a requirement for face-to-face physician visits. Now, virtual meetings and telehealth make such requirements obsolete.

Finally, artificially high regulations can keep qualified individuals out of a profession. This problem was recently highlighted in mental health, where a report from the Health and Human Services Administration indicated 83.3% of Utah’s population has trouble accessing mental health professionals.

As their first official action, Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued Executive Order 2021-1, which asked executive branch agencies to take a “fresh look” at professional licensing regulations. Since then, we’ve heard from legislators and other stakeholders that there needs to be a more meaningful system of prioritization and licensure review. Professionals expressed concern that changes to some industries have been so frequent that they lacked a predictable structure.

Under direction from the governor, Commerce worked with lawmakers to develop SB16, which passed during this year’s legislative session. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble and Rep. Joel Ferry, creates the Office of Professional Licensure Review.

This new office will review every state license on a regular, 10-year basis and possibly more frequently. Prioritization could consider workforce needs, like the mental health professionals shortage mentioned previously, or industry innovations. Once these priorities are set, the office will review the best available data to evaluate each license under SB16′s criteria: whether the licensure requirements are well-tuned to ensure public health, safety, or financial welfare without being too restrictive. The office will also obtain feedback and expertise by engaging with stakeholders as appropriate, including boards and professional associations. The final step is to produce an annual report with recommendations for the Legislature to make changes (or not) as needed so Utahns can participate in the economy safely and efficiently.

We at the Department of Commerce are looking forward to welcoming this new office and believe it will provide a predictable review process for professionally-licensed industries, ensure regulations are relevant to workforce and economic needs, and set up Utah for long-term licensure reform that will unleash the dynamism of Utah’s workforce.

Margaret Busse

Margaret Busse is the executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce. Gov. Spencer Cox appointed Busse to that position shortly after taking office in 2021. Prior to her appointment, Busse served for several years as the associate director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School.