By Evelyn Pyburn

There has been lots of ideas floated about how Montana can attract and retain young people to sustain a work force that falls far short of being able to meet the demand for skilled educated workers by business in the state. While most of the ideas have merit and will to some degree help, there is one idea that’s never been mentioned, perhaps because it is not readily seen as having impact on the labor force. That idea is for the state to back off many of the regulations and licensing and permitting requirements it places on many professions and business startups.

In Montana, we carefully parcel-out opportunity by permitting and licensing everything.

While this is most often done in the name of health and safety, most of the time it amounts to little more than protectionism – protecting established businesses against competition. It is without doubt a process of picking winners and losers and now that labor is in short supply, it turns out that perhaps we are all the losers.

Few things done by the state does more to discourage and impede younger people, and undoubtedly would-be newcomers to the state. It is through this process that we in Montana have sent our children and grandchildren out-of-state to make their fortunes, to build careers, to innovate and to enjoy life. Now we want them to return?

Montana has long been noted as being one of the most aggressive states when it comes to permitting and licensing livelihoods, as well as regulating to the nth degree everything from making dog biscuits to styling hair to building houses.

Starting many years ago with the licensing of Grade B dairies, I began to see the real point behind licensing and permitting—to get rid of the competition. Lip service is always given to “health and safety” as though it were a consumer issue, but over some 40 years of reporting, I have never been called upon by consumers demanding such intervention – it has always been by the established “industry” itself. The target is usually “upstart new comers” whose competition is making life tough for the establishment.

Not that there aren’t sometimes legitimate concerns, but it is seldom clear how instituting bureaucratic permissions solves the problem. And often the problem is caused by earlier regulations or is really an industry attempt to remove a cost of doing business by creating an agency of government to do it for them. 

 And, there is never a weighing of benefits. There is never a balancing of supposed “health and safety” benefits against the loss of future innovation, prices, value or entrepreneurship. An ideal example was the licensing of appraisers. As a service it is not rocket science, and every prospective home buyer does some of it themselves in the edges of the newspaper classifieds, and yet Montana declared that you had to be licensed. Established appraisers saw a golden opportunity and it was indeed golden for what became a government franchise handed to a privileged few families or established businesses, who were granted the power to control entry into their industry. Nice.

The problems that may have existed could have been resolved by mortgage lenders doing a better job of due diligence—but it was less expensive for them if they could push that responsibility onto government. 

Other losers are would-be entrepreneurs. Among our children that we send packing to seek opportunity and livelihoods elsewhere are the future builders of business and the innovators of new products and processes and services, the investors to help fund future enterprise and support higher wages. Why should we be surprised that they and their children, our grandchildren, aren’t here now? And, what do you suppose they advise their children about where to go seek a living?

Some years ago I knew of a group of five college graduates who were good friends through college and thought it would be fun to start a business together. Since they were all from different states in the northwest they decided they would look at the viability of each state as to the prospects for the success of their business plan.

On the list were Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Montana was the first one they crossed off the list because of licensing and permitting requirements. They were greater in Montana than any of the other states.

In the end the would-be partners never started their business and each went their separate ways, but what lesson do they all hold in their minds, to this very day, about Montana? Bear in mind, one of these young men was the son of a very, very wealthy Washington entrepreneur who has nothing but millions to invest. Another one is the protégé of a very large and well-known, family-owned company, that has continued to grow and to locate new outlets and plants across the country – none in Montana.

All of the young men were smart, educated, capable and hard-working, exactly the kind of prospective workers for which Montana employers are now fervently searching.

To change their view of Montana is going to take a bit more than some slick ads and marketing campaign.