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Low-Wage Workers Such as Beauticians Face Unnecessary Licensing Burdens

Multiple studies show that mandatory licensing hurts workers financially, reduces employment and raises consumer costs.

Students Tyneisha Bell, front, and Chelsea Wheeler, practice a color application on mannequin heads at the American Barber and Beauty Academy in Reading, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2021.

Master chef Thomas Keller started as a dishwasher and worked his way up. Culinary superstar Tom Colicchio taught himself to cook in high school. And Food Network host Ree Drummond studied gerontology.

None of these food experts attended culinary school. None passed state exams. And none paid for occupational licensing. They just put on their aprons and started cooking.

Unfortunately, a similar career path would be illegal in the beauty industry. Idaho hair braider Tedy Okech risked criminal prosecution and civil fines of up to $1,000 per violation when she immigrated from Uganda and started serving clients in her new community.

Okech had the right skills, just not the right permission slip from the government.

She learned African-style hair braiding in her youth from family and friends, so she had no need for formal education to study her craft. Idaho beauty schools don’t teach braiding anyway. Yet the state demanded attendance.

“I shouldn’t need the government’s permission to use a safe skill I learned when I was little to provide for my family,” Okech says.

If she had wanted to work in a commercial kitchen, she could have started earning a paycheck immediately. But to work in her chosen occupation, she needed to complete 3,200 hours as a cosmetology apprentice or 1,600 hours as a cosmetology student. Tuition and fees often top $16,000 — not counting lost wages for time spent in the classroom.

Rather than accept the arbitrary rules, Okech sued Idaho in March 2022 with representation from our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice. State lawmakers responded by repealing the licensing requirement for braiders. Yet barriers remain for millions of workers in dozens of industries nationwide.

Interior designers need six years of education and experience before they can earn income in Louisiana and Nevada. Day care providers need an associate’s degree in Washington, D.C. And specialty contractors like carpenters, cement finishers and drywall installers often need more than one year of experience to satisfy licensing requirements — no matter how much skill they have.

License to Work,” an Institute for Justice report published on November 29, 2022, examines 102 lower-income occupations and finds beauty professionals commonly face especially high barriers. Most of these beauty workers are women, and many are immigrants.

Some aspiring beauty professionals choose alternate careers to avoid the expense. Others hide in the shadows, looking over their shoulders when they work.

Raven Dybedahl, a freelance makeup artist, risks prosecution every time she provides on-site services at weddings and other special events in Fargo, North Dakota. “I feel like I’m on the black market to do a job that I love,” Dybedahl told state lawmakers in 2021.

After Mississippi ended licensing requirements for hair braiders in 2005, more than 6,700 workers — mostly African American women — joined the formal economy. Louisiana, which still criminalizes unlicensed braiding, has fewer than 20 registrants in the same occupation.

The Louisiana Board of Cosmetology defends the licensing requirement as a safety and sanitation precaution, but the more likely reason for the mandate is economic protectionism. Salon owners benefit from rules that limit competition, and beauty schools benefit from forced enrollment. The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which opposes government favoritism in Louisiana, blames the state’s resistance to reform on the “usual entrenched status quo.”

Thousands of braiders likely remain underground as a result of licensing, which leaves them vulnerable. They cannot even report mistreatment without exposing themselves to prosecution.

Food handlers face none of these risks. When the government requires any training at all for back-of-house staff, it’s usually just a 30-minute online course costing less than $10. Little else is needed to ensure public health and safety — the only legitimate reason for regulators to interfere with a person’s right to earn an honest living.

The lack of mandatory schooling for chefs should not alarm anyone. Unlicensed does not mean unregulated.

Governments have less intrusive ways to protect consumers. Regulators can — and often do — conduct site inspections, enforce deceptive trade practice acts, require bonding or insurance, and offer certification options for professionals who want to set themselves apart. Customer reviews create additional accountability. So does the threat of litigation.

Chefs who want to hone their skills can still enroll in culinary school. But mandatory education is not necessary.

The same model could work at beauty salons. Health inspectors already make visits and check for code violations. Employers already enforce hiring standards. And clients already use Yelp and similar sites to report experiences. The industry is regulated in multiple ways.

Many beauty professionals would continue to pay for formal education — with or without mandates — because they take their occupations seriously. Managers attend business school, writers attend journalism school and designers attend art school for the same reason. They want to be good at what they do.

Licensing advocates don’t trust this motivation. They predict disaster without forced schooling. Yet they undercut their argument every time they dine out. Eating is more closely associated with risk than visiting a salon or barbershop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people in the United States get sick every year from foodborne illness. Meanwhile, an independent government report from Hawaii finds that “barbering and beauty culture pose a minimal risk to the public’s health, safety, or welfare.”

Despite the data, regulators acknowledge that licensing chefs is unnecessary. The rules are the same whether diners choose fast food or a five-star resort.

Policy makers should remember this reality when designing regulatory regimes for other industries. Multiple studies, cited in the new Institute for Justice report, show that licensing hurts workers financially, reduces employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, and raises consumer costs.

Culinary school is not always necessary, and neither is beauty school. By scaling back or eliminating licensing requirements, states can bring honest workers out of the shadows.