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Jeran Culina   ·  

How Tennessee used data to pass legislation to fill talent gaps

To highlight the innovative work of state policymakers across our network, BLU is beginning a series of state policy blogs that will uplift the work of our BLU Affiliate Network. Blogs will focus on the process of how business leaders came together with stakeholders to support funding and/or policy changes that allow for more equitable opportunities for workers and businesses engaged with the workforce development system. 

Problem: Tennessee is currently facing a talent shortfall where employers have more open positions than the available talent pool can fill. The need is especially dire in some of the state’s high-wage, high-demand industries like healthcare, where nurses are a critical need. At the same time, more than 7,000 Dreamers — or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — call Tennessee home. Many of these immigrants (who have legal work documentation status) have completed skills training in these areas in their countries of origin but were ineligible for state licensure required in some fields. Nursing, real estate, and teaching are just some of the many career fields that require a commercial or professional license. But in Tennessee, DACA recipients were not eligible to obtain those licenses. These individuals have the skills and ability to fill talent gaps very quickly but couldn’t be employed in the state’s key industry sectors due to licensure requirements.

Solution: To solve for this problem, TN enacted The Workforce Expansion Bill which expanded the eligibility criteria for commercial and professional licenses to anyone who is authorized to work in the United States. Over 7,000 DACA recipients and 3,000 Temporary Protected Status holders will benefit from this piece of legislation.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in partnership with their BLU Affiliate coalition made up of chambers from Memphis, Knoxville, and Tennessee’s state chamber collaborated with the agencies advocating for this bill to provide:

1. Data and information: Utilizing the Chamber Research Center the group showed the extent of the talent gap overall and drilled down into specific industries, like health care. That documentation showed the extent of the talent challenge and the extent to which the proposed legislation could chip away at that talent gap to a tangible and measurable degree.

2. Coalition building: Chamber representatives worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle to build support and buy in for the proposed legislation.

How it works: Prior to this legislation, individuals who were currently attending skills training programs could complete the program but were unable to work due to restrictions on licensing. Without the ability to get a license to work after earning the credential, workers couldn't work in their chosen fields (unless they moved to other states) and Tennessee businesses could not hire this population of qualified workers.  Thanks to the advocacy of so many business leaders in the state, the Workforce Expansion Bill was passed into law on July 1st, 2022. The law allows anyone with a federally authorized work permit to access professional and occupational licenses, so long as they meet all other requirements of the licensing board. People who had previously completed degrees in their home countries or through training providers in the state of Tennessee can now sit for licensing exams and enter the career pathway of their choice without running into a barrier when it came time to apply for a license.

How does it help businesses? This legislation provided an immediate solution for a portion of the state’s talent challenge. Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Research Center estimates that, for example, in nursing, an estimated 7,000 new nurses could immediately pursue licensure and move into vacant nursing roles.

Due to the political climate, the use of data was critical for the passage of the legislation. Focusing on the data and practical workforce solutions helped advocates cut through the emotion and political rhetoric around immigration. It helped policymakers focus on solutions that could make a measurable difference for the state's businesses, workforce, and in the case of nursing – for the state’s patients.