Occupational License

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      June 26, 2016 - This is a story about jobs and how hard it is for some Americans to find them. The search is made more difficult by time-consuming and expensive licensing processes required for thousands of jobs. And, believe it or not, it can be a lot easier to become a medical professional who treats patients than to get licensed to trim trees or pack boxes. Full Measure investigated and found out that so-called "occupational licenses" are sometimes occupational hazards and could be shutting down millions of Americans.

      Melony Armstrong: Professional hair braiding, the art of hair braiding, of course has been passed down from, you know, generation to generation in the African American or African culture.

      A few years back, Melony Armstrong decided to change her career to professional hair braiding. She was stunned to find out what it would take in her home state of Mississippi.

      Armstrong: I was going to have to go to cosmetology school and get a 1,500 hour cosmetology license.

      That's right. To braid hair, she would have to go to beauty school for a year and a half.

      Armstrong: I was going to have to quit my full-time job, because I was an assistant director at a boys' home. I also would have had to pay about $10,000 because that's the cost, that's what the curriculum cost at the time. A person can go and become certified as an ambulance driver in that short amount of time, and here in the state at the time was requiring someone like myself, who just wanted to hair braid, to have to go to school for a year and a half.

      It's estimated millions of Americans are hitting the same brick wall. They want to learn a new job or start a business only to find arduous regulations standing in the way.

      Andy Koenig: The issue here is what's called Occupational Licensing, and these are regulations in states and local government that require people to get certifications or licenses before getting a certain job.

      Andy Koenig is with the conservative Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. He says there's bipartisan concern about over-licensing.

      Koenig: What's happened in the past 50 years or so, is that these have been drastically expanded to cover a wide swath of careers and jobs that have nothing to do with public safety. That's had the adverse impact of keeping people who want to get a new job or get a new career out of a marketplace.

      Today, Koenig says more than a thousand professions require state or local licenses, from interior decorators to the guy who boxes your deliveries.

      Sharyl Attkisson: Who's hurt by this process, in your view?

      Koenig: Millions of people, according to recent studies, are now out of the workforce because of these requirements, and it really disproportionately hurts the least advantaged. People who are, you know, graduating high school or college and looking for a job. People who lost their job in the recession and are looking to start a new career, become entrepreneurs. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan trying to get back into the workplace.

      Attkisson: Let's say a military vet returns from a war and wants to kind of hang out a shingle and cut hair. What would that take in a given state?

      Koenig: In the state of Nevada, that would take you almost a thousand days. Eight hundred and ninety days of training to become a barber in the state of Nevada.

      Attkisson: Almost three years?

      Koenig: Three years. Not to mention about $500 worth of fees, which may not sound like a lot of money to you or me or somebody who's established in their career, but to people who are just starting out, this can be a real barrier to pursuing that career.

      A spokesman for the Professional Beauty Association, which represents salon professionals, told us, "With the potential to spread diseases or risk of injury to a client, consumers are better served" by mandatory licensing.

      Attkisson: What if the people who are requiring the licenses say, 'This is a training and safety issue. You can't have just anybody poking people with scissors at the barber shop'?

      Koenig: But if you look from 1950, the number of jobs that require licenses has risen from 5% to 30%. There are a number of jobs that have fallen under this, I think, that most reasonable people would agree [are] not public safety issues. I think one good example is here in Virginia, where it takes four times as long to get a license to become a massage therapist as it does to become an emergency medical technician.

      In fact, on average, you can become an emergency medical technician or EMT with about 33 days of education and training.

      But cosmetologists require more than a year. Commercial carpenters and cabinet makers need 450 days in school. Tree trimmers? In seven states, 369 days.

      But Stephan Szoke argues that's not excessive.

      In order to start a tree service in Maryland, he had to be an apprentice for five years and pass a state exam. He says the process weeds out those with no training or insurance who may be unsafe.

      Stephan Szoke: In this business, you don't get a papercut. You're being hauled off in an ambulance if you get hurt. It's a tough - it's a tough thing.

      Koenig says there are often competitive reasons behind all the licensing requirements.

      Koenig: These have been set up to protect the existing businesses and keep people who want to enter that field out. So you'll see organizations who represent barbers go to state capitals and lobby against reforms when they're moving through the legislature.

      Attkisson: And they're lobbying against making it easier for other barbers to enter the market?

      Koenig: That's one-hundred percent right. They want to keep up these artificial barriers to opportunity in order to protect themselves from competition.

      Szoke admits there is a competitive element behind his support of the licensing requirements.

      Szoke: It's not fair to me that I had to go through all the steps, and then you have guys come out, and we have a lot of, now we have a lot of illegals in the country. I mean, they're just walking up to doors, knocking on doors, and they're doing the tree work without any, any coverage or anything.

      Melony Armstrong tried to take on the tangled bureaucracy standing in the way of her hair braiding. Finally, a licensing official told her she should get a wigologist license, which takes a fraction of the time.

      Armstrong: And I said, 'Really? What is a wigologist license?' And they said, 'Well, it's a license. The curriculum involves the application of wigs, the sizing of wigs, the cleaning of wigs, the fitting of wigs'. And I'm thinking, 'Okay what does this have to do with me? I don't want to make wigs'. 'Well', they said, 'Well, if you went to a school and got this license, the state would allow you to be able to open a hair braiding salon'.

      So Armstrong, whose aspirations had nothing to do with wigs, went to wig school. In the meantime, she contacted a powerful Mississippi State Representative, Steve Holland, and found a sympathetic ear.

      Rep. Steve Holland (D)-MS: I said, 'I thought everybody learned to braid on their front porch from where I'm from, and they do a good job, and I don't see the need for much licensure on that'. That's how we started our story, and thank goodness I was chairman of the committee.

      He chaired the powerful Mississippi state committee over cosmetology licenses. In addition, it seems Holland had grappled with his own licensing challenges over the years.

      Rep. Holland: I am a licensed embalmer and funeral director myself in the trade. I own funeral homes, and it was so laborious for me to get my license. I mean, I understand the academic training. I understand all the testing, but I mean sitting before these folks, and these occupational licensures are self-serving to a large degree. They're egotistical to the profession.

      Together, he and Armstrong worked up a bill to deregulate hair braiding.

      Holland: I don't think you'll find one death certificate at the Mississippi State Department of Health Vital Statistics Division that said, 'Cause of death: hair braiding'.

      That's when the beauty brigade launched a full-force assault. Holland remembers it as one of his finest battles in thirty years in the Mississippi State Legislature.

      Rep. Holland: The cosmetologists by the hundreds descended on me, and the Cosmetology Board, trying to tell me what I would do. I finally got my belly full of them, and I stood up in my committee and I said, 'I'll tell you what you're going to have to, what I'm going to do to you. I'm abolishing the Board of Cosmetology if hair braiding has to be licensed. So y'all can get the hell out of my committee room right now and not come back because I'm the chair, and that's the way it's going to be'.

      That was 2005. Holland says the bill's opponents still remember the battle of the braids.

      Rep. Holland: I don't think we had a vote against us on the floor of the House. Now, the Senate Chairman didn't feel as strongly as I did, and I basically told her, 'to go to hell'. You could either have a Cosmetology Board, or you could accept my language, and she accepted it.

      A happy ending for one profession in one state. But nationwide, it's estimated licensing restrictions reduce job opportunities by 2.85 million, mostly in low and middle-income professions. Veterans and immigrants are among the hardest hit.

      Armstrong: Entrepreneurs are the backbone of this country. Then, for the government to come in and make it almost impossible to even start small businesses, to even be an entrepreneur, that is just really, you know, just unfair and is very unfortunate.

      Professional barber and beauty groups told us all the training is for safety and you can be a barber in some states in 11 months, but they are looking for ways to reduce the time and funding necessary.