Laura Ebke on Solutions for Nebraska’s Worker Shortage
Platte Institute Senior Fellow Laura Ebke says there’s more the state can do to welcome workers with career and military experience to join Nebraska’s workforce. A transcript of this episode is available below.
Mentioned on this episode:
Jim Vokal: Right now, there are more than 52,000 job openings listed on Nebraska’s state online job board. We’re also hiring here at the Platte Institute. But even if every Nebraskan on unemployment somehow landed one of those jobs today, there’d still be about 30,000 jobs unfilled. Is Nebraska doing all it can to roll out the red carpet for workers who might be looking for a new place to have a career?
Joining me now is Laura Ebke, a Senior Fellow here at the Platte Institute and former Nebraska state senator, who has dedicated a lot of her involvement and research to labor market issues. Thanks for being here, Laura.
Laura Ebke: Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim Vokal: All right, Laura, lawmakers in Iowa recently committed to substantially reducing the income tax rates that workers and businesses will be paying in the near future, which certainly doesn’t hurt their ability to compete for talent, but this comes after Iowa and states around Nebraska have adopted other policies that eliminate roadblocks for workers. Can you tell us more about what our neighbors are doing?
Laura Ebke: Yeah, you know, virtually all of the states around us have enacted some sort of occupational licensing reform. So, for instance, in 2020 Iowa passed a law that gave us broad recognition to licenses and experiences that workers from out of state might already have that makes it easier for those out-of-state regulated occupations to come to their state and get to work. You know, likewise, the Iowa bill expanded opportunities for those who have criminal convictions. Missouri, another state to our east, passed a comprehensive recognition bill in 2021 and also established what they called their Fresh Start Act, which prevents licensing boards from denying licenses based on criminal records alone, with a few exceptions in terms of types of crimes or offenses that had a substantial relationship to the occupation. Kansas passed a law in 2018 with significant components of the Missouri Fresh Start Act, and then in 2021, they started down the path of universal recognition with military spouses. In 2020, Colorado passed a universal recognition bill for many occupations. They prohibit licensing denials based on criminal convictions unless that conviction is directly related to the license—is the language—and then Wyoming and South Dakota aren’t quite as far along yet, but they have both introduced legislation similar to those in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado and they have elements of the Fresh Start program in theirs as well.
Jim Vokal: And many of the jobs where Nebraska is facing shortages are state licensed professionals, Laura, so what are senators in Nebraska doing to catch up with our neighbors on universal recognition of the job licensing?
Laura Ebke: Sure, well, Nebraska’s taken several steps in favor of universal recognition already. Last year the governor signed two bills, LB390, which was sponsored by Sen. Murman, and that created sort of a universal recognition structure for many of the health care professionals out there, and then LB389, which was sponsored by Sen. Sanders, created automatic licensure for military spouses who had teacher certification in other states. Now last year, Sen. Briese introduced LB263, which the Platte Institute has been working for. And that’s now amended into LB709, another one of our priority bills. LB263 would go beyond both of those earlier bills, and in terms of recognition, we wouldn’t limit recognition just to health care workers nor just to teachers who happen to be military spouses. It’s a really broad bill which includes most occupations in Nebraska, except for a few which have very specific federal components. Sen. McCollister’s LB709, which LB263 is now a part of, assuming the committee amendment is adopted on the floor, would incorporate many of the criminal history elements that those other states have adopted as well.
Jim Vokal: That landscape is pretty helpful, Laura, but can you explain the difference to our listeners—on the difference between universal recognition and reciprocity?
Laura Ebke: Sure. You know, a lot of people refer to them the same way because it has some of the same functions, but recognition is one-sided, in sort of geek-occupational-licensing terms. So, if we have universal recognition, we recognize licenses from outside of the state regardless of whether or not those states reciprocate. Reciprocity assumes sort of a two-way connection and it’s one of those things that you find that a lot of people and even the governor in 2021 when he had his bills, referred to it as reciprocity, but in reality what we were doing was recognition.
Jim Vokal: Thanks for clearing that up for everybody. Now this is the third session of the Legislature where you’ve been working on this type of legislation. Can you explain what some of the obstacles are for passing the universal recognition bill and about some of the Nebraskans you’ve met along the way who could who have [been] helped?
Laura Ebke: Sure. Well, I mean, if I were going to define it in the most concise terms, the biggest obstacle we seem to face with universal recognition is sort of a general lack of desire to do something different, and sort of a fear of change. State agencies and licensing boards tend to want to maintain the status quo. You know, they think that they’ve got it all figured out, and likewise we see a lot of pushback from some of those in the regulated industries who aren’t sure that they really want to open the door to competition from outside of the state. So, you know, those are very understandable emotions, I think, and emotional reactions. But they lose sight of the real purpose of occupational licensing. You know, licensing is supposed to protect the public safety, not to make life easier for licensing boards or to protect the industries and get in the way of the free market.
So both of these bills have had two really outstanding examples of where we’ve failed folks in our state. I think you know in 2021 I got to know a young man from Bridgeport—I think you did a podcast with him—Mike Beyer. And Mike served our country in the U.S. Navy for eight years. He trained as a construction electrician, he worked at Camp David for a period of time and then served as the lead electrician for SEAL teams in Iraq. And during that time he also completed a Department of Labor apprenticeship program, and when he returned home, he wanted to take his journeyman license exam and was told by the state electrical board that only one—one of his eight years of military experience— could count towards the required apprenticeship time to be eligible to test. That means that he would have had to do another three years of apprenticeship. So after we learned about his story we shook up a little publicity, and the electrical board backtracked, and let him take his licensing exam, which he passed. But, you know, I have to wonder sometimes how many of our veterans who’ve been trained in some of the most demanding fields, you know, have been left out because they didn’t have the Platte Institute or some other organization creating, you know, some publicity for them. You know, had LB263 been law, Mike could have been licensed much more easily, honoring both his military training and his experience.
And then there’s another person that we’ve run into who really demonstrates the importance of redemption and second chances. That’s Alana Alexander. And she was, you know, as a teenager and early 20-something, she had some real struggles with substance abuse. And ended up spending some time incarcerated. And while she was in prison, she straightened her life out, she learned some trades, but then found out that she’d never be able to get licensed to practice those particular trades because of her history. So once she got out, she went to college, then to graduate school hoping to help others, especially young people who struggled with the issues that she had. Then she found out that her past, many years later, still hadn’t been put behind her and that she’d never be able to be licensed as either a social worker or a substance abuse counselor. You know, LB709 would address some of those issues and allow those who want to start over to have an opportunity to have a career that actually means something to them, and which you know they could contribute greatly to.
Jim Vokal: Those are great stories. LB709 certainly can help folks like the two that you mentioned, but also help in this remote work environment as we’re trying to attract more people. All right, let’s get back to the bill. LB709, coming out of the Government Committee, had almost unanimous support, which includes some of the most conservative senators on the committee, and some of the most progressive Nebraska state senators, so getting that kind of broad agreement doesn’t always happen. But there’s still going to be a push to exempt some industries from universal recognition once this bill gets to the floor debate. Is there any precedent for this kind of move in other states, and what do lawmakers need to know when considering proposals to scale back job licensing reforms?
Laura Ebke: Yeah, you know, it’s certainly not unusual for some industries to push back against occupational licensing reform. You know, we saw it in 2018 when we were moving the Occupational Board Reform Act, even though that bill was really just seeking reporting from licensing boards so that policymakers had a better sense of what the boards were doing. You know, anecdotally, almost every legislator and policymaker working in this field across the country can tell some stories about pushback from the group. That said, there are a dozen or so states, depending on how you count them, who’ve implemented a version of universal recognition, including most of the states surrounding Nebraska, and over half of the states in the country have pushed some form of Second Chance or Fair Chance legislation in in licensing for those who have a criminal history in their background. You know, we’re really not plowing any new ground with LB263 and LB709 which, is what I try to tell senators all the time. This is nothing new. We’re not the first in the country to do this. I wish we had been. But if we pass this as called for in the committee amendment, when combined with the original LB299 from 2018, Nebraska will come very close if not, you know, actually there, to being at the very front of the pack in terms of licensing reform with a very comprehensive framework that I think we can build upon later.
Jim Vokal: Speaking at being at the front of the pack, Nebraska was really making some significant policy change on job licensing that was putting our state in a leadership position nationally. We were one of the few states actually reducing the overall amount of licensing required to get a job and senators created a review process, that you had a lot to do with, that is flagging outdated laws that [are] being reformed or even eliminated at times. But Nebraska still has a workforce shortage, as we talked about. The New York Times even said it was the most significant shortage in the country. So just to play Devil’s Advocate now, Laura, what’s the likelihood that if Nebraska passes universal recognition the problem’s going to get much better, and is there more we need to be doing after it passes?
Laura Ebke: Yeah, so looking into my crystal ball, you know, if we pass these bills in this session, realistically, we’re not going to see change in the workforce overnight. I think it’s one piece of the workforce puzzle though and, you know, that’s the way so many problems are that policymakers deal with. That, you know, there’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle, and if you don’t deal with the whole package, you don’t really make a lot of progress. So if young men and women in Nebraska were thinking about going into the military, for instance, you know, high school seniors, college-age freshmen or whatever, or people who are already in the military, and they know that their military training will be recognized for purposes of an occupational license, well, that maybe they’ll decide to return to Nebraska to practice their trade like Mike Beyer did.
As we’ve all learned during COVID, and you alluded to a minute ago, you know many of us are learning that we’re able to work remotely from home, but even if your job allows you to do that, in a world with two-income families, and that’s become sort of the norm, right? You always have to think about whether there’s a job for your spouse or significant other, and how tough it is for them to qualify for licensure in a new state if they have that kind of an occupation. So, again, I mean, I think ease of license portability could really help folks thinking about a move. You know, helps them to look more closely at Nebraska. But I think there’s something even more important for us to consider in all of this, you know, even beyond workforce development, which is certainly really important. We want people to be able to work and chase their dreams to the best of their abilities, right? We don’t want government to have an inordinate amount of power to stop that, so while workforce will be positively impacted at some level by these bills, just as important is the fact that there will be a few less barriers holding individuals back from chasing their dreams, and ultimately with these two bills added to the Occupational Board Reform Act, we’ll have a great foundation for maximizing that opportunity, for growing our workforce, and for regularly assessing needed changes to our occupational licensing structure. I think the ability to be nimble and recognize changing conditions is really important for policymakers. You know, in our lifetimes, we’ve seen a ton of change in the technology and the way that people look at work, and we need to be able to adapt our policy to meet up with those changes. You know, I really suspect that as long as there are occupational licenses there will be work for us to do in this realm, but I think that it becomes much more manageable once we pass these two bills.
Jim Vokal: Dr. Ebke, thanks for all your work and leadership on this issue and joining me today on Nebraskanomics.
Laura Ebke: Thanks, Jim.