Noem signs law making it easier to license SD workers coming from other states

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 6:53 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - In a Sioux Falls factory full of pipes and welding equipment — where local plumbers, heating and air conditioning technicians, and fire sprinkler contractors hone their craft — Gov. Kristi Noem signed Senate Bill 76 into law on Wednesday.

It is legislation that sponsors say will help members of those industries — and nearly “every profession of South Dakota” — bring in more talented professionals from all over the country by recognizing out-of-state licenses.

In the media release announcing Noem’s press conference, SB 76 was touted, as a boost for fields that need it the most like “accountants and auditors, elementary school teachers, electricians, secondary school teachers, and plumbers.”

How much does someone who represents teachers in the state’s largest district think the new law will help? That answer, a bit later.

Noem chose Midwestern Mechanical, Inc., a place where plumbers train, as the backdrop for her signature.

The president of that company told Dakota News Now it was an exciting day that will greatly help his company compete in the increasingly competitive labor market of Sioux Falls — where Amazon and Wholestone Foods pork processing are building giant plants and hiring thousands of people who are moving from all over the country.

Ken Amundson is also thrilled for the plumbing industry in South Dakota, because recognizing out-of-state licenses will perhaps help the state take an upper hand over other states that experience similar red tape and roadblocks to hiring out-of-state plumbing talent.

“South Dakota is kind of leading the charge on this,” Amundson said told Dakota News Now. “It’s always good to be first. I’m hoping some of the states around us learn the lesson.”

South Dakota has reciprocity with plumbers’ licenses from Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. But for those who live in the other 46 states and hope to move to South Dakota and work as a plumber, why had it been so difficult before Wednesday to obtain a license?

The state makes all plumbers — even those with years and decades of experience — take and pass South Dakota’s test, an obstacle Amundson finds strenuous and unnecessary.

“It gets to be a problem when your livelihood becomes your license,” Amundson said. “When you move from California to, say, South Dakota, and now you have to re-test and go through all that red tape.”

The workforce is historically mobile, Amundson said. Never have so many people from near but especially far, like the coasts, have more people wanted to move to the Upper Midwest for work, he said. And yet, while retaining employees has not been an issue, expanding the business has been grueling and nearly impossible, he said.

“We’re always looking for talent,” Amundson said. “The talent is available, but they have a hard time getting the license. They’re already capable people. (The licensing process) is a detriment to them coming to the state, and it takes longer for us to get their information into our system.”

Midwest Mechanical’s education manager, who does the licensing for the company, puts it this way:

“It’s just, each state is wanting to have their little bit of control on it,” Cody Schroeder said. “So, really, that’s what it boils down to. We have trouble licensing with tother states that do the exact same code as us. Their red tape, the reason they do it to people like me — journeymen — it’s kind of unknown.”

A Corsica native, Schroeder moved to Sioux Falls after graduating high school in 2005, and got into plumbing after a friend who was already at Midwest Mechanical encouraged him to follow suit. He went through the required four years as an apprentice, then passed his “journeyman” test to obtain his license as a certified plumber in the state.

He said he loves it.

“You get to work with your hands, completing a job,” Schroeder said. “You get to drive past it every day and say, ‘I had a part in that building. It’s just kind of cool. And we work in a lot of hospitals. Just the satisfaction of helping people. That’s what we do.

After 15 years in the business, Schroeder moved to Oklahoma to live closer to family in 2020. And he figured, with his experience, he’d easily become a plumber there, too. He was wrong.

“I was kind of shocked to hear they wouldn’t except our plumbing license, so that was kind of discouraging,” Schroeder said. “And that’s tough to take after putting in that much work over 15 years, and for it to not be recognized was kind of a tough deal.”

He quit plumbing and worked at a tire plant in Lawton, Okla.

“Us journeymen, we’re fine with paying the licensing fees. We’re fine with doing what it takes,” Schroeder said. “But, to not be validated with your previous work and all you put it, that can be too much. In my case, it was, and I moved on.”

About a year after that ordeal, Midwest Mechanical offered Schroeder to move back to Sioux Falls and become the education manager. He now train plumbers to earn their South Dakota license.

But he is thrilled that those who want to come from other states to work for the company will no longer have to take the South Dakota test to be licensed. They will still have to take the city of Sioux Falls test, but SB 76′s passage and Noem’s signature is still a game-changing event, he said.

“It’s huge,” Schroeder said. “We always need talent. It just makes it that much easier for us to get talent. Removes the roadblocks. Removes the hurdles.”

You’re probably wondering — Wouldn’t higher salaries also help bring more professionals from out-of-state to South Dakota? The answer is — of course, yes. But Amundson said that having a license is already “worth something,” and Midwest Mechanical has raised wages twice in the past year alone.

South Dakota ranks 11th out of 50 states when it comes to average plumber salary at just under $54,000 per year, according to Zip Recruiter. Indeed, licensing was a much bigger obstacle than wages in hiring the best possible plumbers from all over the nation.

It appears the opposite is the case for the teaching field, a sector that the bill’s sponsors said was among those with the biggest need to benefit from this new law.

A human resources representative from the Sioux Falls School District told Dakota News Now that recognizing out-of-state licenses “could increase the number of candidates with industry experience eligible,” but pointed out that “reciprocity changes ordained by the South Dakota Dept. of Education in 2017 already eliminated some of the testing/coursework hurdles for teachers moving between states.”

That SFSD rep also remarked that “South Dakota’s teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation. Even with licensing reciprocity in place for teachers since 2017, Sioux Falls has difficulty competing with other states for educators.”