Lawmakers and pundits alike agree that workforce development will be one of the Georgia General Assembly’s top issues this session, and reforms can’t come soon enough. Despite being the number one state to do business, the Peach State has a history of making it difficult to get a job and address workforce deficiencies.

One of most burdensome government impediments to employment are occupational licenses, which are essentially permission slips you must get from the government in order to work in many professions. While they ostensibly exist to protect the public, they often limit competition within industries and can serve to benefit industry insiders more than consumers.

Roughly 30 percent of workers need a license to work, and getting one can be a hassle. Prospective workers often need to pay fees, complete coursework and pass state-approved tests. This naturally impacts the broader economy.

Studies have demonstrated that licensing requirements may result in 3 million fewer jobs across the nation, cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars extra per year and may not serve the public as much as one would hope. A President Barack Obama administration report found: “Most empirical evidence does not find that stricter licensing requirements improve quality, public safety or health.”

While some professional licenses—for doctors, for instance—are absolutely necessary and serve a purpose, licensing mandates ought to be reasonable.

According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), Georgia has the 12th most burdensome occupational licensing regimes for lower income professions. The state requires, on average, more than “$185 in fees, 464 days of education and experience, and about two exams,” IJ found. What’s more, in most cases, Georgia refuses to recognize out-of-state licenses of people who relocate here—forcing them to begin the expensive and time-consuming licensing process anew.

Meanwhile, the state is facing serious worker shortages. A few sectors are particularly hurting—first responders and medical professionals. This is especially true in Georgia, which has some of the worst rates of nurses per capita and physician-to-patient ratios.

2018 report discovered that 64 counties were without a single pediatrician, 79 had zero obstetricians/gynecologists, and nine counties didn’t have any medical doctors. Matters don’t seem to have improved much since then. “About a third of Georgians, or 3.3 million, live in an area with a primary care shortage,” writes WUGA.

Similarly, the National Police Foundation announced that 86 percent of the country’s police departments have suffered from staffing shortages. Many of those departments are right here in Georgia, from Chatham County to Atlanta to Gainesville. Compounding these matters, Georgia localities are struggling to fill their ranks of firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

These workforce deficiencies exist to the detriment of Georgia’s public health and safety. Plugging these gaps has proven to be a stubborn proposition, considering that there’s a limited pool of potential workers. The Peach State’s unemployment rate stands at a low 3 percent and “Pre-COVID, there were 3 openings for every person looking for a job in our state,” reads a 2022 Georgia Chamber of Commerce report. Now that the economy has largely rebounded from the COVID-19 shutdowns, we are likely facing a similar situation.

Given these realities, one of the surest ways of addressing Georgia’s labor shortages is to encourage experienced first responders and medical professionals from other states to relocate here. Doing so isn’t easy, especially if they understand that their spouses will struggle to get employment thanks to unnecessarily burdensome and duplicative occupational licensing requirements.

In response, Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, has introduced a bill to ensure that many of those who relocate here, particularly spouses of first responders and medical professionals, can more easily obtain the government’s permission to work. The measure would direct licensing boards to offer them licensure by endorsement, if they meet specific criteria, including holding an out-of-state license in good standing that’s substantially similar in scope and qualifications to Georgia’s.

This will ultimately make it easier for families of first responders and medical professionals to relocate to the Peach State—greatly benefiting Georgians and addressing workforce shortages. However, this still won’t alleviate many of the broader occupational licensing issues, but lawmakers have recognized the need to do more.

Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, introduced SR 85 to create the Senate Occupational Licensing Study Committee. If approved, its members would review how to safely and responsibly reduce occupational licensing burdens—an important step toward fixing the current system.

These pieces of legislation closely resemble measures that former-senator-turned-labor-commissioner Bruce Thompson championed last year, and both enjoyed broad support. In fact, Thompson’s SB 352, which mirrors Rep. Martin’s bill, passed both chambers unanimously, but ultimately failed to become law due to a procedural quirk and political grandstanding.

With Georgians’ well-being hanging in the balance and facing rampant workforce deficiencies, the Legislature must act quickly and decisively this year.