AUGUSTA — Faced with a stagnant, aging population and a growing shortage of workers in many fields, lawmakers are weighing a move to ease licensing restrictions that make it harder for people to take jobs in a wide variety of occupations.

A proposal before the Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business calls for a study of licensing requirements in a bid to lessen the burden on applicants, particularly those moving to Maine from other states or countries.

Rep. Victoria Morales

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, told colleagues this week that increased access to licensing “will benefit Maine workers and Maine people.”

Morales, the bill’s chief sponsor, told the committee that easing licensing portability would “provide a pathway for social mobility of professionals to move to Maine and reduce the trend of the population decline for our young people.”

The state has a large number of occupational licensing requirements for everything from lawyers to log scalers. They typically require applicants to show they have the training and experience to handle the demands of the profession.

There are at least 160 licensed occupations in Maine, said Jacob Posik, communications director for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. That’s up from 134 in 2007, he told lawmakers.

Graph from the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s “Let Us Work” report in 2018.

He said the policy center he represents backs “an expansive and thorough review of the barriers to entry within Maine’s hundreds of occupational licensing regimes,” including ones limiting reciprocal licenses, “which we believe is a major deterrent to attracting qualified workers to our state.”

Anne Head, commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, told legislators that many licensing boards already provide pathways to portability for out-of-state and foreign-trained workers to secure permission to take jobs in their field in Maine.

But, she said, “the pathway can be daunting for those applicants who can no longer access their transcripts and credentials to substantiate their qualifications,” a problem of particular concern to new Mainers who have fled war-torn lands where records are difficult or impossible to obtain.

Head said it’s a big enough issue that she would like to study how other states are addressing it.

Morales said that as a volunteer attorney for an immigrant legal project, she represented many families seeking asylum after fleeing their homes beyond America’s borders.

“The vast majority” of them, she said, “have come to Maine with advanced educational degrees in their own countries: attorneys, judges, graduate students, nurses. Notwithstanding this level of education, the professional licensing challenges for them have been almost insurmountably high.”

Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, pointed out to legislators that U.S. Census data shows that as of 2017, a higher percentage of immigrants to Maine have graduate degrees than native-born Mainers and that immigrants have almost the same rate of college education as natives.

“Yet Maine’s immigrants have high rates of so-called brain waste, where they are underemployed, working at jobs that are far beneath their skill level,” she said. About a quarter of them, Stickney said, are working at jobs below their capacity.

Sally Sutton, program coordinator for the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland, said the licensing system is “one of the most challenging aspects of a foreign-trained professional’s entry into the U.S. workforce.”

A recent report from her center and Portland Adult Education, Foreign Trained Professionals: Maine’s Hidden Talent Pool, offered a number of suggestions to improve the licensing system. Sutton said removing barriers will help skilled immigrants “restart their lives and careers here in Maine.”

Background of participants at the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland, from a 2018 report.

Stickney said, “Barriers raised by opaque credentialing and professional licensing processes and inflexible requirements” stymie people “who have followed a nontraditional path, such as foreign education and experience, from gaining licensure in their chosen careers.”

“These barriers also harm Maine’s employers who need these workers to be able to work at their highest potential,” Stickney said.

Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, a business-led education advocacy organization, said more attention needs to be focused on “increasing the share of non-college credentials of value in the workforce.”

He said business requires more workers with the appropriate certification, but it’s a challenge to get solid information about them.

“Unlike college degrees, data on non-college credentials in the economy is decentralized and not always easy to come by,” he said.

Because it is “hard to gauge what is needed and what obstacles exist to increasing the number of adults with these types of certificates,” Cervone said, it is “difficult to plan effectively.”

He said the study proposed in the bill would be “a good first step in getting our arms around this information.”

Posik told legislators one answer is simply to scale back licensing requirements.

In a 2018 study, Let Us Work, he argued that Maine has excessive rules to work in many types of jobs.

“Occupational licensing is not a left vs. right issue,” Posik said. “The overwhelming consensus of scholarly research is that unless imposed with extraordinary parsimony and care, occupational licensing deters people from entering regulated professions, raises prices for goods and services and does little to enhance public safety.”

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