A Hairy Situation: Occupational Licenses Face New Scrutiny

A hair braider's fight against Arkansas' tough licensing requirements for cosmetologists is just the latest example of a growing debate about whether licensure of some professions is really needed.

To license or not to license? That’s the central question in a debate that pits some professionals against state authorities and certain trade groups over what critics see as barriers between workers and their chosen career paths.

Take, for example, the case of Nivea Earl, a professional hair braider and president of the Natural State Braiders Association, who sued the state of Arkansas last year over its licensing requirement. Earl says she doesn’t need a cosmetology license to do her job, and to get a license, she would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to take 1,500 hours of coursework, learning skills that have nothing to do with her trade.

“Braiding is a safe and simple practice and a centuries-old form of cultural expression,” Earl explains on her website. “There is no evidence of a threat to public health and safety by unlicensed hair braiders. Many states do not license braiders, and there are no problems in those states.”

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that has long argued against professional licensing requirements, is helping Earl and hair braiders in other states with similar lawsuits.

“There are some things that are so safe and so common that the state has no business licensing them, and braiding is definitely one of those things,” attorney Paul Avelar told the Associated Press recently.

A bill in the Arkansas legislature would remove hair braiding from cosmetology regulation. If it passes, the institute pledges to stop its lawsuit. But that likely won’t be the end of the debate over licensing standards—one that’s starting to gain traction nationally.

The Case for Licensing

Many trade groups argue that licenses are needed to ensure that professionals have necessary skills and use best practices that keep consumers safe. The Professional Beauty Association, for example, stands behind the licensing requirement.

“We agree there’s room to streamline the process to obtain a license and reduce the amount of regulation,” PRA Director of Government Affairs Myra Irizarry told Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “We are working in our own industry to encourage consistency across states and license reciprocity. However, we strongly stand by the occupational licensing of the cosmetology industry.”

She added that PRA doesn’t think braiders need licenses but suggested they be required to take a health, safety, and sanitation course.

Many critics of licensing, meanwhile, point to inconsistencies from profession to profession that may not make sense and suggest that reforms are needed

“There can be an obvious disconnect between the strictness of licensing regulations and the potential harm to consumer safety,” according to a recent paper published by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. “For example, Michigan requires 1,460 days of education and training to become an athletic trainer, but just 26 to be an emergency medical technician (EMT). In fact, across all states, interior designers, barbers, cosmetologists, and manicurists all face greater average licensing requirements than do EMTs.”

It’s cases like these that have President Barack Obama’s administration examining the issue. The administration set aside $15 million in its recent budget proposal to study the effects of occupational licensing on the workforce.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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