States gain from letting immigrants work

The labor shortage is an obvious problem across the country. There are almost two open jobs for every unemployed person in the country. Solving the supply-side issue in skilled professions is particularly challenging because they require licenses. This is true for a large number of both white-collar and blue-collar fields. Today, about one out of every five workers requires a license to work.

Although the licensure requirements are usually designed to ensure that professionals have met certain standards of education and training and are qualified to perform their jobs, they create barriers that exacerbate the labor shortage. Specifically, immigrants face a considerable barrier—largely due to limited English skills—to earning a license. However, some are barred because of their citizenship or legal status, not because of their actual abilities.

Removing unnecessary barriers to job entry for immigrants is a promising way to create a rising tide that lifts all boats. There’s a clear need for trained professionals in licensed fields, so clearing the path for immigrants to earn licenses is a big help.

That’s why states like Arkansas, California, Utah, and others are looking at expanding the ability for immigrants to earn licenses. Policymakers in these states realize that allowing undocumented workers to earn occupational licenses would benefit those they represent, the workers themselves, and overall improve the economy. Businesses and consumers alike would have a larger pool of skilled, licensed workers to hire.

My new research published by the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University shows that California’s reforms have succeeded. In 2014, California removed the legal work status requirement for many occupational licenses, which used to be a major hurdle for undocumented immigrants in the state to get professional jobs. It was a big step forward to utilize already-existing talents to solve the labor shortage in many skilled professions.

Removing unnecessary license requirements not only helps undocumented workers thrive, but it also has positive effects. In fact, my research shows that when California opened licensed fields to immigrants, new workers trained up and joined the workforce. Not only that, but my data shows how natives still succeeded in the same field—working arm in arm with more people born outside of the country.

Certainly, immigration policy is a complicated and contentious area. It’s true that the US faces immigration challenges and realizing federal reform to help those in the country illegally is unlikely. This makes it all the more important that states lead.

Finding ways to better integrate immigrants into communities works to everyone’s gain. Removing unnecessary barriers like citizenship requirements for occupational licenses is a great step that will improve the lives of citizens by expanding the supply of skilled workers. And it will help immigrants by letting them prove their abilities and earn their place in licensed trades.

Undocumented immigrants contribute significantly to the US economy but have yet to be fully integrated into US society. They have limited access to job opportunities and basic social support, and they face the constant threat of deportation. Allowing them to earn occupational licenses would benefit not only the workers themselves but also the economy and society as a whole.

It’s time to recognize the contributions of undocumented workers and provide them with the opportunities they need to thrive. For local and state policymakers, reforms that meet immigrants with open arms are likely to improve the lives of those born here as well as new Americans.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.