By David Barnes
If the White House wants to carry out its promise to boost American jobs, it can start by removing the government-imposed obstacles that stand in the way of job seekers. Encouragingly, the Federal Trade Commission is hosting a roundtable this week to examine different ways to ease the burden of occupational licensing. This will shine a spotlight on one of the largest barriers to young people seeking employment, and one that doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserves.
Occupational licensing laws require workers to obtain a government permission slip to enter a given profession. In practice, this amounts to jumping through a series of regulatory hurdles – such as apprenticeships, mandatory training and tests and fees – before one is allowed to perform a job and earn a paycheck.
And these onerous requirements affect every one of us: Even if you are not one of the 25 percent of Americans working in a licensed profession, occupational licensing laws drive up the price you pay for everything from a haircut to prescription glasses.
One of the most egregious examples is the licensing requirements for hair braiding, which is perfectly safe and uses no dyes or chemicals. Many states require aspiring hair braiders to spend thousands of dollars and complete several months of unnecessary coursework to earn a cosmetology license. In New Jersey, for instance, braiders must complete a 1,200-hour cosmetology course that costs about $17,000, yet does not actually include curriculum related to braiding.
Last month, Generation Opportunity and the Institute for Justice held a press conference in Trenton where several hair braiders spoke about the burden of this licensing scheme. One of the speakers, Anita, is a mother of four children, including a son who was born deaf. Rather than go on welfare, she chose to support herself and her family through hair braiding.
But because she doesn’t possess a cosmetology license, the state slammed her with a $1,200 fine.
Anita, an immigrant from Ghana, doesn’t see why she must go to school to learn something that she is already experienced in and that is ingrained in her culture. “Braiding is part of us,” she said. “It’s something that we grow [up] with.”
Hair braiding is hardly the only profession where licensing requirements have become absurd. In four states, interior designers are required to undergo no less than six years of education and training. Even landscape workers are licensed in 10 states.
The impetus for stricter licensing usually comes from established professionals and their lobbyists, who would like nothing more than to restrict the number of entrants to their field. For them, licensing is a handy tool to reduce competition and raise prices on the rest of us. Economists at the University of Minnesota estimated that licensing increases consumer prices by more than $200 billion each year and results in 2.85 million fewer jobs nationwide.
The traditional justification for these policies is that they protect quality and safety standards in the industry. But with the ubiquity of online reviews, occupational licensing is beginning to look increasingly outdated. Whether choosing a new hair stylist or hiring an interior designer, people today are more likely to care about a professional’s digital reputation than whatever government-mandated qualifications they might have obtained.
Fortunately, federal and state governments are looking for ways to lift the burdens of occupational licensing. One solution is to exempt certain practices from licensing requirements. Today, 23 states exempt hair braiders from cosmetology licensing laws. Alternatively, states can broaden the scope of services that a licensed practitioner can offer, so that a dental hygienist can perform routine procedures without the direct supervision of a dentist.
Of course, the best solution is often to end licensing regimes altogether. In a free country like ours, workers shouldn’t need permission from government bureaucrats to pursue their dreams.
David Barnes is the policy director of Generation Opportunity.