The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In taking on cosmetologists — and other licensed professions — the White House may have picked a fight it can’t win

Why deregulation is harder than it looks.

Susan Peterkin-Bishop owns a salon in Silver Spring, and thinks natural hair care stylists should have to be licensed. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

FOR 17 years, Susan Peterkin-Bishop had the natural hair care market pretty much to herself on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring, Md. But then, a few years ago, salons started popping up right and left — cutting into her business. “Right now anybody can just open up shop and say 'I’m a natural hair care stylist,'” she says.

That’s literally true, and unusual in the beauty industry. Most hairdressers need to graduate from a training program with at least 1,500 hours of training before the state of Maryland will grant them permission to practice; Peterkin-Bishop herself is a licensed cosmetologist. “Natural” hair stylists, who don’t use chemicals or heat treatments, can just hang a shingle and start braiding.

Peterkin-Bishop is trying to change that. She and a collection of salon owners have banded together to push a bill in Annapolis that would require practitioners of their craft to be trained and licensed. “At least it will weed out those ones who are really really bad,” says Peterkin-Bishop, who oversees three employees working quietly in her brightly lit salon.

In doing so, she’s picked a much bigger fight than she may have realized — with the White House, which thinks that the expansion of such occupational licenses has created a substantial drag on the economy by making it harder for people to start their own businesses, while usually adding little public benefit.

"The evidence in terms of occupational licensing is that it really matters,” said Jason Furman, chair of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, at a think tank last week in Washington. The share of the workforce that has a required state license — for everything from hearing aid dealers to funeral parlor owners — has grown from 5 percent in the 1950s to nearly 29 percent today, he said, sometimes with the effect of raising prices for consumers.

“We’re just trying to put a big thumb on the scale on behalf of the workers who don’t have those licenses, and the consumers that buy their services."
— Council of Economic Advisors chairman Jason Furman

The White House put out a report on the issue over the summer, and has since then been encouraging state legislatures and governors to take a closer look at their licensing laws with an eye towards rolling some back. It's also requested $15 million for the Department of Labor to identify places where licensing requirements might be excessive. “We’re just trying to put a big thumb on the scale on behalf of the workers who don’t have those licenses, and the consumers that buy their services,” Furman said.

So far, however, the pushback against occupational licensing hasn’t been terribly successful — in large part because of people like Peterkin-Bishop, who’ve been able to convince lawmakers that their professions are worth protecting.

A rising concern, frequently rebutted

The drumbeat around occupational licenses actually started a few years before the White House caught on. The leader has been Morris Kleiner, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose research has documented the rise of licensure and its effects on the labor market. Being in a licensed profession is associated with as much as 15 percent higher wages, he found, and may slow employment growth in the field.

“With licensing, you’re creating a monopoly, and it’s very difficult for people in many places to enter these occupations,” Kleiner says. “And it’s keeping people away from the American dream.” He’s also concerned that licensure can inhibit geographic mobility, since getting licensed in a whole new state can be just enough of a hassle to make you stay put.

The argument for easing licensure laws also started gaining traction because it’s one of those rare issues that both conservatives and liberals can love. The Heritage Foundation frowns on occupational licenses almost as much as it frowns upon unions, Americans for Prosperity has championed their removal, and the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice has been challenging the licenses in lawsuits across the country. The GOP-run House Small Business Committee held a hearing on the issue, and before his electoral defeat, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor  took up the cause as well.

"I don’t mean to be snarky,” says Tamar Jacoby, president of the non-profit Opportunity America, on the same panel with Furman. “But it is really nice to see a Democratic administration saying that maybe there’s some over-regulation somewhere in the economy."

The White House first came to the issue through the plight of military spouses. They move frequently from state to state, and if they’re nurses, teachers, dental assistants, manicurists, construction contractors, or in any one of dozens of other licensed occupations, they can have a hard time getting settled in a new place. Veterans themselves may have gotten all kinds of training that isn't recognized by state licensure boards, requiring them to spend time and money proving what they already know — that’s why the American Legion has gotten involved in pushing for reform, as well.

“With licensing, you’re creating a monopoly, and it’s very difficult for people in many places to enter these occupations. And it’s keeping people away from the American dream.”
— University of Minnesota professor Morris Kleiner

Finally, the issue has gained even more popular currency with the rise of on-demand services like Uber, which has challenged the incumbent taxi industry; some are now questioning whether for-hire drivers should be licensed at all.

All of that has prompted some states to re-examine their regulations. Wisconsin is weighing whether to prevent local jurisdictions from creating their own occupational licenses. Savannah, Ga., just dropped a licensing requirement for tour guides. Governors in a few states, like Idaho and Iowa, have vetoed bills that would have required licensure for sign language interpreters and addictive disorder counselors respectively. Morris Kleiner says he’s frequently called upon to testify in front of government entities as they mull de-licensing occupations.

But overall, it’s extremely rare that governments decide to relinquish control over entry to a profession. According to a recent comprehensive overview by professors Robert Thornton of Lehigh University and Edward Timmons of Saint Francis University, only a handful have done so over the past few decades. Even when states have sunset laws that require licenses to be regularly re-examined, legislatures frequently don't act on recommendations that licenses be dropped, since professional associations in the targeted field will quickly rally to protect the standards that their members had to meet to gain entry.

Meanwhile, the push to license new professions continues apace: Private investigators in Mississippi, music therapists in Florida, and elevator maintenance workers in New York are all seeking a state-mandated qualification.

“I think the atmosphere has changed in tone,” says Adam Parfitt, executive director of the Council on Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation, which tracks these rules in the states. “Whether that’s translating yet into widespread deregulation, I’d say probably not.”

What happens when cosmetologists get active

As an example of how licensed professions fight off deregulation attempts, take the beauty industry, which is often among those targeted. Why should someone need a license to cut hair or do someone’s hair and makeup? lawmakers often ask.

According to Myra Irizarry, government affairs director for the Professional Beauty Association, it’s not nearly so simple. The chemicals and electronics used in modern salons can be dangerous in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use them. Usually, she says, opposition to licensing in the beauty industry is born out of ignorance.

“A lot of the think tanks that put out reports are from people who’ve never been to a salon. They’ll just tell me, 'my mechanic doesn’t have to go to school for 1,000 hours, why should my wife’s aesthetician?’” Irizarry says. “If you went home to your wife and asked 'if someone who was going to tint her lashes didn’t go to school, would you do it?' No, she’s not going to do it, it’s her face!”

The PBA has been fighting deregulation movements across the country, with a social media and print advertising campaign encouraging members to lobby against them when they crop up. So far, they’ve been pretty successful; in 2012 they fought off a bill in Indiana that could have gotten rid of cosmetology licenses altogether, and haven't encountered a serious challenge yet.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they want barriers to be as high as possible. Irizarry says her group supports license reciprocity, through which states decide to recognize each others’ certifications. She’s even fine with reducing the number of hours required to earn a license, saying the current average of about 1,500 could safely go down to as low as 1,000. And on the contentious issue of African hair braiding, she supports a limited license, so people don’t have to go through an entire cosmetology curriculum.

Still, that’s too much for some practitioners, who don’t think they should have to pay thousands of dollars for cosmetology school to learn a skill they grew up with. “We all had a doll baby. We all learned to do the braid,” says Eneshal "Cookie" Miller, a Maryland stylist who’s opposed to the bill that would require a license for natural hair care. “Africans feel that hair braiding is a natural, God-given talent.”

Opponents to licensure argue that the Internet has enabled a more organic, consumer-driven way of validating a service provider's reputation: If you ruin someone’s hair, your rating will tank on sites like Yelp. Other professional associations and community colleges offer certification programs that signify a degree of proficiency, without the state needing to step in.

But to Susan Peterkin-Bishop, nothing wins consumer confidence like a government-issued piece of paper, as well as a pipeline of people schooled in a certain craft. She’s had to train every one of her stylists, starting them at the shampoo station and gradually transitioning them to braiding hair and matting it into locks.

“If you went home to your wife and asked 'if someone who was going to tint her lashes didn’t go to school, would you do it?' No, she’s not going to do it, it’s her face!”
— Professional Beauty Association government affairs director Myra Irizarry

Along with other salon owners, that’s how she managed to convince Maryland Delegate Will Smith that licenses are not a barrier to entry, but rather a means of economic empowerment for the people who earn them.

“If you’re holding yourself up as a professional, you should have some sort of credential that would legitimize this profession,” Smith says. “It would bring a number of folks into the mainstream economy, that they could use to be employed throughout the state.”

And when experts in a field say that something is necessary, they’re usually the ones a lawmaker will trust. “As the economy evolves, so too will the regulations,” Smith says. "I think we’ve got it right in Maryland, but this was brought to me by the professionals.”