How non-citizens could patch the state’s workforce problem

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Governor Andy Beshear often points to Kentucky’s low unemployment rate, which sits at 3.9%, as proof that the state’s economy is doing well. 

Republicans, however, often cite the Commonwealth’s workforce participation rate — 56.8% in December 2021 — as proof that Kentuckians aren’t participating in the workforce as a reason to cut crucial benefits in order to get them back to work. 

But Rep. Nina Kulkarni (D-Louisville) is approaching employment from a different angle. She suggests reforming the state’s licensing requirements so non-citizen immigrants can participate in the workforce. 

Kulkarni, Deputy Program Director for The Council of State Governments Carl Sims, and Utah State Representative Norm Thurston presented their arguments to the Interim Joint Committee on Licensing, Occupations, and Administrative Regulations. 

Kulkarni said that she thinks Kentucky would benefit from license reform that allows foreign-born workers to work here to meet the region’s economic and workforce needs, even if they are not citizens. 

“There is actually a [federal] prohibition that would limit the ability of immigrants who learn to earn professional licenses if they’re non-citizens,” Kulkarni said. “So states have taken it upon themselves to look at their own regulations.”

Kulkarni pointed toward a bill in Colorado that created a task force to study the issue. They also created an English as a second language program to help bridge the gap for non-English speakers. 

“I wanted to sort of focus the committee’s attention on that because we are talking here about creating more efficient and effective pathways to professional licensure for our refugee population,” Kulkarni said. “I think this is the best way to study the issue to understand the scope and the impact of putting this population to work in areas that we are in critical need of their services.”

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients cannot obtain occupational licensure in Kentucky. They must prove their citizenship when applying for licensure; if they can’t, they can be disqualified from getting a license. 

Northern Kentucky Rep. Adam Koening (R-Erlanger), who co-chairs the committee, asked Thurston what they did in Utah to ensure individuals met the right qualifications. 

“I think it’s good policy,” Koenig said. “My concern, primarily, is every state has different licensing rules.”

Thurston said they’ve worked with their refugee communities to train them on competency-based tools, even if they’ve had some educational opportunities. 

“We’ve also worked hard to eliminate those language barriers and being a little bit more flexible in terms of documentation and requirements because we understand that they may not have access to university transcripts, etc.,” Thurston said. 

Republican Sen. Donald Douglas (R-Nicholasville) said he’s willing to have the conversation, but if it costs Kentuckians their jobs, he said it’s not worth it. 

“I know there are workforce issues and are workforce gaps, but I’m not willing to fill those gaps if it’s gonna put our citizens in danger,” Douglas said. 

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