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Are cosmetologists training longer than emergency medical technicians?

Politicians such as President Trump have made a flawed apples-and-oranges comparison. (Video: Sarah Cahlan/The Washington Post)
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“In many states, workers must pay thousands of dollars and complete months — and years, even — of training to enter fields such as real estate, tourism, and many others. For example — this surprised me — nationally, the average training for cosmetologists is 11 times longer than the training for emergency medical technicians.”

— President Trump, remarks during a White House lunch with governors, June 13, 2019

This is one of those claims that made our ears perk up. It’s strange, oddly specific and, if true, concerning — we’d hope the person responding to our 911 calls trained longer than our hair stylists.

The remarks were made during the “working lunch with governors on workforce freedom and mobility,” where President Trump urged occupational licensing reform and other job initiatives. In comparing the training hours of EMTs and cosmetologists, the president was categorizing some occupational licensing laws as burdensome.

What are occupational licensing laws? Simply put, it’s a right to practice. If a professional in a licensed job — like a cosmetologist or emergency medical technician — is working without a license, they could be fined or jailed.

So, are the numbers correct? At first glance, yes. There is no national standard on occupational licensing, so laws vary by state, but on average, cosmetologists do train a little over 10 times as long as EMTs.

But when we dug deeper, we learned that the comparison is misplaced — and that Trump is not the only politician who has fallen into this trap.

The Facts

The Trump reelection campaign wasn’t aware of what numbers the president was referring to but sent links to reports that echo his claims. Among them was a 2017 study from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice and a 2017 article from the New York Times. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

We found more examples of politicians scrutinizing licensing laws, and weirdly enough, conservatives and liberals have historically united around occupational licensing reform. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) recently rolled back licensing requirements in his state, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang released a plan to increase “the mobility of individual licenses,” the conservative Americans for Prosperity political advocacy group condemned licensing as “harmful and unnecessary,” and in 2015, the Obama administration released a report encouraging state legislators to review their licensing laws.

When it comes to occupational licensing, there’s not a lot of difference between the Obama and Trump administrations, said Morris Kleiner, a leader in occupational licensing research and professor at the University of Minnesota. They both expressed interest in overhauling the system.

So why did policymakers originally adopt licensing laws? Some argue it was for public safety. A 1990 report by the Federal Trade Commission said “when properly designed and administered, occupational licensing can protect the public’s health and safety by increasing the quality of professionals’ services through mandatory entry requirements — such as education — and business practice restrictions — such as advertising restrictions.”

But Kleiner said there may be other motives for these laws.

“If you’re a cosmetologist or a barber, and if you’re licensed, you can raise your own wages as much as 15 to 20 percent over the course of your lifetime,” he said. “So that’s a huge benefit to those people in the occupation, and they’re willing to spend a lot of money to lobby to have those regulations initiated and to ratchet up those requirements.”

Cosmetologists disagree. They insist licensing protects the public. Patrick Guarniere, co-owner of the Salon Professional Academy in Washington, D.C., said it would be a “public hazard” if cosmetology was deregulated.

But there’s not a whole lot of literature to back that up. “There’s some evidence that, for example, the licensing of midwives in the early 1900s helped reduce infant and mother’s mortality rates, but that’s one of the few studies that have been fairly conclusive,” Kleiner said.

The Obama report noted: “With the caveats that the literature focuses on specific examples and that quality is difficult to measure, most research does not find that licensing improves quality or public health and safety.”

Not only is quality difficult to measure, but quantifying licensing’s effects on safety can be tricky because rules vary by state. For instance, an electrician has to get a license in Alaska but not Arizona. In the District, cosmetologists have to complete 1,500 hours of training. In Iowa, it’s 2,100.

Setting a national standard for licensing is something politicians have advocated — especially because it makes moving across state lines easier for military spouses — and cosmetologists are willing to accept. But there’s not many other areas of agreement.

There’s still a heated debate on the number of training hours, deregulation and what adjacent professions should be regulated, if any. Hair braiding has been a lightning rod for politicians. Former vice president Joe Biden recently brought up his dissatisfaction with hair-braiding regulations during a campaign speech: “If you are a hair braider, you braid people’s hair, you have to get a license to do something like 400 hours of training in another state.”

In some states, hair braiders have to get cosmetology licenses. Others offer separate licenses. In Virginia, it’s deregulated.

Destinee Wright is a hair braider in Virginia and understands the value in training but does not think it should be mandatory. “I don’t think it’s necessary for something that a lot of us learn from our moms or that gets passed down,” she said. She’s also worried about access.

The median salary for a cosmetologist in the United States is $24,830. For-profit beauty schools charge an average of $17,000.

"If you have this program that is expensive, I’m worried that folks who have learned this technique from their family members are then being forced to pay for expensive licensing,” Wright said.

But Guarniere and other cosmetologists still say the industry needs licensing to protect customers. “This is much more than just ‘I want a haircut,’ Guarniere said. “Someone that didn’t know what they were doing with the chemicals to put on your head could burn you severely, causing your hair to fall out and really damaging or hurting you.”

He also said that 1,500 hours is not enough to properly train a cosmetologist: “It’s very challenging for us to teach a student how to be a successful cosmetologist in 1,500 hours. There is a huge difference between having a license and being able to have a career.” But whether it’s up to the government to regulate training of a craft versus safety standards is still up for debate.

“Our students aren't coming out to entry-level positions,” Guarniere said in response to the comparison of cosmetology and emergency medical technician training hours.

Guarniere is right. Emergency medical technicians are entry-level professionals. They provide basic life support. Paramedics, on the other hand, are rungs higher on the medical totem pole — and are often said to provide a more apt comparison. (Paramedics can perform an intubation; EMTs cannot. With very few exceptions, EMTs cannot break skin.)

For example, in Maryland, cosmetologists must complete 1,500 hours of training or serve as an apprentice for two years. Paramedics must complete EMT training, spend 12 months on the job and finish 1,100 more hours of training.

The Pinocchio Test

Politicians may agree that occupational licensing laws need to be reviewed, but they should be wary of comparing professions. Each industry has unique challenges and responsibilities to the public. Cosmetologists may train longer than emergency medical technicians, but comparing two dramatically different fields misses the larger point about what the aim of licenses is and whom they are designed to protect.

We started on this fact check because we spotted a comment by Trump, but it turns out this is a bipartisan failure. Politicians need to be more careful about making such apples-to-oranges comparisons. Otherwise, they’ll earn Two Pinocchios. (The video above is part of a YouTube series from the Fact Checker. To catch up on past episodes, and not miss future ones, subscribe here.)

Update, Aug. 20: After publication, there was a response to our reporting from Forbes and an article from the Council of State Governments echoing our analysis.

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