Last fall, Area Development Magazine named Georgia the top state for business for the seventh consecutive year. “[This] is a powerful testament to the fundamental strength of Georgia’s economy, even in these challenging times,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a written statement. “After all of these years, it’s abundantly clear that Georgia remains the epicenter for job growth.”
Indeed, it is a proud achievement, and it represents policymakers’ diligence to create a friendly business environment. However, maintaining this enviable position and fostering an environment of continued job growth requires lawmakers’ constant attention, and there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, particularly on occupational licensing reform.
As it stands, roughly around 25 percent of Americans are required to obtain an occupational license to work, but many of these individuals struggle to obtain the government’s permission to earn a living. After all, Georgia has the country’s 14th most burdensome occupational licensing regimes—requiring “on average, $185 in fees, 464 days of education and experience, and about two exams,” according to the Institute for Justice.
Georgia lawmakers have recognized the burdens that occupational licensing imposes on workers, and have gradually sought to reform the system. In 2019, the legislature approved a measure to forbid the state from suspending the licenses of individuals because they fell behind on their student loans. And in 2020, the General Assembly approved Rep. Heath Clark (R-Warner Robins) and Sen. Bruce Thompson’s (R-White) legislation to make it easier for military spouses with out-of-state licenses to get permission to work upon relocating to Georgia.
Despite these improvements, Georgia has lagged behind several other states, including Arizona, that continue to responsibly liberalize their occupational licensing statutes, but 2021 might be the year that Georgia becomes a national leader in licensing reform. That’s because Rep. Clark and Sen. Thompson have introduced measures to improve the state’s licensing system further—especially for veterans and those who relocate to Georgia, which is desperately needed.
Georgia is the fifth most popular state to move to. In fact, in 2019 alone, more than a quarter of a million people relocated here for various reasons—many of whom hold out-of-state occupational licenses. However, since most licenses do not cross state lines, they are unable to obtain gainful employment until after they meet all of Georgia’s licensing requirements and apply for a state license. This makes it more likely as applicants navigate the licensing application process, they will not be able to provide for their families and might be forced to seek public assistance.
Rather than maintaining the status quo, Sen. Thompson and Rep. Clark have introduced a novel proposal: Anyone who moves to Georgia and previously held an out-of-state license in good standing that is “substantially similar in qualifications and scope” to Georgia’s licensing requirements would be awarded a license by endorsement and allowed to work in the Peach State—although some restrictions would apply. And why not adopt this model? If workers have already demonstrated their qualifications and competencies in other states and have a license similar to Georgia’s, they ought to be safe to work here too.
Beyond this matter, Sen. Thompson and Rep. Clark have focused on helping veterans join the civilian workforce, and there are many too. Around 200,000 veterans are discharged per year, and many settle in Georgia: Over 600,000 veterans live in the Peach State currently.
To help these individuals obtain civilian work, in 2013, then-Rep. Christian Coomer sponsored legislation permitting veterans to apply for the issuance of an Electrical Contractor Class I, Journeyman Plumber, Conditioned Air Contractor Class I or a Utility Foreman license if their military experience and training “substantially meets or exceeds the requirements to obtain a license or certification in this state.” This makes sense, given that there are corresponding military certifications that closely mirror the state’s.
However, this provision can only apply if veterans apply within 180 days after their discharge, but Georgia’s model has caused problems for vets. Some cannot apply for a license within the 180-day period due to many circumstances, including long-term hospitalizations—as has been the case in Georgia. As a result, both Sen. Thompson and Rep. Clark have proposed expanding the application period to two years, which is standard elsewhere. This seems like a fair compromise considering that these veterans’ non-perishable skills, training and experience are still intact within a two-year window.
The truth is that, currently, Georgia’s occupational licensing regimes create many barriers—oftentimes unnecessarily—to employment, but it appears that lawmakers are more than amenable to cutting red tape responsibly. If they do, Georgians can look forward to many more years of being the best place to do business.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.