Occupational Licensing Needs a Haircut

A new paper shows how we can trim educational requirements for barbers, manicurists, and cosmetologists.

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Are haircuts so complex and dangerous that everybody who cuts hair should undergo mandatory haircut training? Opinions vary.

There are plenty of parents who give their kids the occasional unregulated haircut. But when money is exchanged for a haircut, that's illegal—unless the haircutter has a license. If you want to cut hair professionally—as a barber or cosmetologist does—you'll need to undergo about a year's worth of training and pay around $10,000 or $15,000 of tuition to get a license.

It is hard to see how the nation is made better off by the requirement of such extensive training and licensing requirements to provide haircuts.

To be clear: some training requirements for these services are in the public interest. It's a good idea to make sure barbers and cosmetologists know how to (for example) safely sharpen, sterilize, and wield their tools. But most of the training that these prospective professionals must receive—by law—seems unrelated to health or safety. On the contrary: much of it seems devoted to matters like learning about various hairstyles, so that customers can get more comely coiffures. It's a fine thing for appearance professionals to learn more about makeup, color theory, and the beautification of fingernails, but the health and safety portions of such training are often minor.

The details of some of these licensing requirements are eyebrow-raising. In South Carolina, cosmetologists must take 50 hours of training in "public relations, salesmanship, and psychology"; in Arkansas, cosmetologists must endure 50 hours in "courtesy, neatness, and professional attitude." How Maryland's requirement of 36 hours of barber training in "job search skills" might benefit consumers is mysterious; the same is true for Oklahoma's requirement of 175 hours of barber training in "salesmanship, job search, shop management, history of barbering, and professional image."

The findings of "Regulating Glamour" suggest that—in a nutshell—only about 25% of the required training for barbers and cosmetologists is related to health or safety. That means that, on average, more than 1,000 hours of training that each of these professionals undergo is both required for licensing and unrelated to licensing's public-interest goals.

Such regulatory overreach implies that state-level policymakers could probably trim away the vast majority of their state's hourly training requirements for these professionals without affecting health and safety at all—and it raises an interesting question: what's the point of requiring a license to provide appearance services if the bulk of the license requirements are unrelated to health or safety? The rationale for imposing licensing requirements on appearance professionals that don't lead to health or safety is far from obvious. We don't make shoe-sellers take classes in the history of heels, loafers, and pumps; no law requires eyeglass vendors to study how frames complement facial shapes.

Here are the results from the 38 jurisdictions that specify training in various fields in a manner that permits measurement:

  • Barbers on average must undergo 1,348 hours of training; the average percentage of health and safety training in their curriculum is 25.62%.
  • Cosmetologists on average must undergo 1,491 hours of training; the average percentage of health and safety training in their curriculum is 25.45%.
  • Manicurists on average must undergo 366 hours of training; the average percentage of health and safety training in their curriculum is 39.79%.

Given these figures, the average number of hours of required health and safety training for these 38 jurisdictions can be calculated. On average, barbers must undergo 345 hours of health and safety training in these jurisdictions; the analogous figure is 379 hours for cosmetologists and 146 hours for manicurists.

Notably, a central reason for licensing is that it protects consumers from making bad choices because of their lack of information or expertise. Consumers themselves don't always have the capacity to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary medical services—or between competent and incompetent medical practitioners.

But in the context of services from appearance professionals, the argument that consumers are without the information they need is empty. There is no knowledge barrier that blocks consumers from distinguishing between good and bad haircuts. Someone who receives incompetent medical attention might suffer terrible, life-long difficulties—but the problems of the recipient of an unattractive haircut are usually trivial and brief. The public doesn't need government to protect us from providers of bad haircuts—because of word of mouth and lack of repeat business, that problem solves itself.

These facts do not provide an argument for getting rid of licensing in its entirety; rather, they suggest that streamlining the hourly training requirements for licensees would advance public welfare by eliminating some barriers to entry—or, to put it less technically, by letting more people work. A related (if relatively unaggressive) goal was endorsed by the cosmetologists' Professional Beauty Association, which called for a 1,000-hour ceiling on their own training requirements; achieving that goal would represent a significant improvement on current training requirements, which average more than 1,500 hours nationally. I appreciate the public-spirited nature of the Professional Beauty Association's recommendation, although I doubt that its leaders will return the favor by endorsing the implications of "Regulating Glamour"—which suggest that a 300- or 400-hour ceiling on barber and cosmetology training requirements would be more appropriate.

Some states are making progress. Recently, Texas and Vermont trimmed the training hours required for cosmetologists from 1,500 to 1,000, thus enacting some of the least burdensome license requirements in the nation. Vermont upped the ante by creating the nation's least burdensome training requirements for barbers: a 750-hour requirement. Florida now statutorily confines all required barber education to the topics of sanitation, safety, and state law, although it is unclear to me whether Florida regulators have complied with the constraints of that statute.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has also signaled a desire to reduce the requirements that his state imposes on cosmetologists, saying "We want to continue to advance the ball, always protecting public health and public safety, but realizing where these regulatory regimes have been built up to stifle competition." The country will be better off when more states streamline licensing requirements—a practice which will simultaneously protect health and safety, lower prices, and spur job creation.

I can only hope that readers find the above discussion of reform of the regulatory framework for the mandatory training of appearance professionals as fascinating as I do (I suspect that this is not universally the case). In my forthcoming (and final) post here, I will discuss the most methodologically controversial part of "Regulating Glamour": namely, what is the most appropriate way to measure the portion of appearance professional training that is relevant to health and safety?