Universal Recognition Will Help Stem Virginia’s Migration Woes

by Conor Norris and Edward Timmons

From pristine beaches to rolling hills and picturesque mountains, Virginia has a lot to attract residents. Combine that with a strong economy and Northern Virginia’s close ties with Washington, D.C., Virginia should be an attractive destination.

But surprisingly, that’s not the case. Despite strong economic performance and a high quality of life, more people are leaving Virginia than moving into the commonwealth. There may not be one silver bullet to reverse this trend, but the legislature just took an important step helping people move to Virginia by recognizing out-of-state professional licenses.

In 2021, Virginia experienced net out-migration. Many of us are puzzled by this trend, blaming some combination of housing prices, remote work, taxes, and weather for enticing people to leave Virginia. Unnecessary barriers for those considering a move into Virginia are also a contributing factor.

If you work in a licensed profession and wanted to move to Virginia in the past, it wasn’t easy to start working in your new home. First, you would have to reapply for a license, paying fees and waiting months for the application process. Sometimes, you would even have to go through training or education again and retake exams, no matter how long you’ve been working, adding time and money to an already expensive process.

The hassle created by the need to reapply for licensure had a real effect on people’s decision to move. Economists estimate that occupational licensing reduces migration by seven percent. Anyone who has moved knows it’s a costly and time-consuming process. Making it difficult to start working is enough to push some people over the edge and prevent them from moving entirely.

Thankfully, that’s now a thing of the past. The Virginia legislature has advanced SB 1213, which recognizes out-of-state licenses. Going forward, people working in many of the professions licensed in Virginia will have a much simpler path to begin work. Universal recognition makes it easier for people to move, while still protecting Virginians.

How will universal recognition work? Someone who has worked in a licensed profession in another state for three years is eligible. Not only do they have to have experience, they also have to practice without disciplinary actions from the other state’s licensing board. But if they have a license, experience, and a clean record, Virginia’s licensing boards must grant them a license without a long delay. Additionally, applicants are able to apply before they finish their move, making it that much more convenient for new residents.

Licensing laws are designed to protect consumers through education, experience, and exam requirements. At first glance, it may seem like this reform will weaken consumer protections. But that’s not the case for universal recognition. Professionals still must meet licensing requirements and practice without harming consumers. What universal recognition does is remove unnecessary red tape for those moving to a new state.

Early research has found evidence that reducing red tape is successful. States that pass universal recognition experience an increase in migration immediately. Economists also believe that laws without residency requirements, like Virginia’s, are more effective. Virginia can expect universal recognition to have an immediate impact helping more skilled professionals move to the commonwealth and begin working.

Will universal recognition remove all barriers for workers in the state? No, there is still work left to do, particularly for existing workers in the state looking to get a license.

Given the current issues with keeping residents, universal recognition is the right reform at the right time. It will help Virginia’s labor market and stabilize a shrinking population — and all without sacrificing consumer safety. Here’s hoping this is the first of many steps to right-size occupational licensing in the state.

Conor Norris is the assistant director and Edward Timmons is director at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at West Virginia University. Timmons is also a senior research fellow with the Archbridge Institute.