Whether you were placed on a long waitlist to get your air conditioner fixed or have noticed the numerous help wanted signs scattered across your city, you’ve experienced the effects of Utah’s labor shortage.

Utahns and local businesses across the state are still struggling to find the workers necessary to help run their businesses or provide necessary services — and the government is partly to blame.

This labor shortage has large-scale consequences as it harms both the economy and individual consumers who simply want their needs to be taken care of promptly. These effects are being felt by families across the state; 68% of Utah voters are concerned about the number of unfilled jobs. 

At the root of this problem is Utah’s occupational licensing laws. These laws bar individuals from working in their chosen field unless they obtain a state-mandated license. Often, these licenses are unnecessary, restrictive and present large barriers in order to obtain them. 

To illustrate how occupational licenses fall short of their intention to protect the health and safety of individuals, just look at the large barriers these laws in Utah place on various mental health professionals.

These barriers discourage working in Utah and, as a result, leave Utah with a lack of mental health services the state desperately needs.

The problems associated with occupational licensing are not going away by themselves. In fact, today, nearly 1 in 3 Americans will need an occupational license to work in his or her profession. 

Thankfully, Utah’s lawmakers have been responding to this problem. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers took proactive steps to alleviate the strain these laws create by passing into law over half a dozen bills focused on reforming occupational licensing. 

These bills ranged from expanding access to health care to restructuring occupational licensing requirements for massage therapists. For example, SB16 will establish the Occupational and Professional Licensure Review Office. This office will work to ensure that unnecessary occupational licenses are not put on the books, and that existing occupational licenses are regularly reviewed based on a range of criteria. The goal is to use a data-driven process to reform licensure laws in the future. 

SB43 directly creates pathways to alleviate the labor shortage Utah is facing. This legislation will attract workers to the state and fill previously vacant jobs by allowing an occupational license to be issued to a person who has come to Utah internationally or from a different state if he or she has at least one year of experience in the profession and can demonstrate competence. This legislation creates a pathway for a person who did not previously hold an occupational license to receive one if it is determined that his or her education and experience are substantively similar to what is required for that profession in Utah.

Another bill, HB154, establishes the Occupational Therapy Licensure Compact (OT Compact). Under the OT Compact, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants who are licensed in good standing in a compact member state may practice in other compact member states via a “compact privilege,” which is equivalent to a license. This opens up the market for more access.

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Finally, SB121 opens up the ability for a whole new group of health care providers to begin work in Utah by granting anesthesiologist assistants the ability to practice within Utah. Again, this is a positive for consumers in Utah, enabling them to be served by more providers. 

In response to the pandemic, many states made changes to their occupational licensing laws to allow health care workers to work more efficiently and fill vacancies. These changes didn’t lead to disaster. In fact, they saved lives. It is encouraging that Utah legislators are recognizing that occupational licenses often do the opposite of what is intended and that they instead are recognizing that these laws can hinder well-being and harm citizens.   

Regulations that impede consumer choice and access need to be reformed or repealed. This legislative session featured some positive steps in reform efforts, but more are in order in the years ahead.

Benjamin Shelton is a policy fellow at Libertas Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Lehi, Utah.

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