Licensed to Work

We should not require state permission to, for example, braid hair.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal
Alan Durning: Food Handler

Photo courtesy Cynthia Savers

I just got my Oregon Food Handler’s Badge. It took 52 minutes online and cost $10. Now I can work legally in Oregon restaurants!

If, however, I wanted to work braiding hair African-style in Oregon, or kickboxing for prize money in Washington, or selling timeshares in Montana, or promoting concerts in Alaska, or as an athletic trainer in Idaho or as scores of other things across the Northwest, I’d have to endure a more onerous licensing process.

Much more onerous.

Consider African-style hair braiding. To braid hair for money in Oregon legally, I would need (in addition to actual braiding skills—no small thing), a hairstylist or barber license. Earning a cosmetology badge requires 1,700 hours of training and classes. That’s often two years of coursework, and it costs thousands of dollars. Worse, the schooling is largely irrelevant to African-style hair braiding.

Sadly, hair braiding is not the only case where outmoded rules make it unnecessarily hard for northwesterners to pursue a livelihood. Now, during the worst recession in living memory, is an ideal time to clear away these barriers to work. And licenses to braid are a great place to start the reforms. For one thing, requiring hairstyling licenses for braiders isn’t just Oregon’s practice, it’s the norm across North America (as the Daily Show hilariously illustrated in this 2004 segment on South Carolina’s braiding rules). It’s the norm in Cascadia, too: Alaska mandates 1,650 hours of cosmetology training for braiders; Idaho and Montana, 2,000 hours.

African hair braiding

Delly, hair braiding in Nigeria, by flickr user jirotrom

For another thing, restricting braiding isn’t just onerous and preposterous. It may be racist. Hair braiders—most of whom are African immigrants or native-born African Americans serving African-American clients—do not cut, straighten, curl, or color hair, the skills taught in beauty schools. What hair braiders do is braid hair. They weave in extensions and decorations, in keeping with traditions that originated in Africa (the photo above is from Nigeria). Licensing keeps skilled hair braiders from legally earning a living.

In 2005, after getting served with a public-interest lawsuit from the libertarian Institute for Justice, Washington’s Department of Licensing exempted hair braiding from licensing by issuing a simple statement of clarification about its regulations. That’s how easy it can be to remove barriers to work. Oregon and other Northwest jurisdictions could do the same.

British Columbia has gone further. In 2004, legislators in Victoria—failing to see any compelling reason to continue licensing beauty workers at all—simply ended regulation of barbers, hair stylists, manicurists, and skin-care estheticians.

De-licensing did not mean the end of training and standards. The BC Beauty Council, a trade association, immediately began offering voluntary certification to salon workers, and most of them continued to seek it. The difference is that customers can decide for themselves if they care about the Beauty Council seal of approval. In the age of Yelp and other social media ratings, state licensing of hair cutters no longer makes sense, if it ever did.

The legitimate purpose of occupational licensing is to protect the interests of the community from ill-trained, inexperienced workers behaving badly. We want to make sure, for example, that midwives, bridge engineers, and pesticide applicators know what they’re doing. Any of them can cause lasting, far-reaching harm. Just so, we want to know that food handlers understand how to keep the food supply free of salmonella and other food-borne illnesses, which kill thousands of people in North America each year. (I, for one, think getting a Food Handler’s Badge should take much more than 52 minutes!)

Reasonable people can disagree about exactly where to draw the line between state licensing and occupations regulating themselves. Construction laborers don’t currently need to secure licenses, nor do mechanics, janitors, couriers, carpenters, event planners, receptionists, painters, waiters, stone masons, or cooks. (And neither do the executive directors of nonprofit public policy centers!) Some of these occupations have associations and training regimes that offer certification and credentials on a voluntary basis, but they are not legally required. Accountants, medical doctors, and attorneys, on the other hand, have official sanction to back up their own professional self-regulation. State bar associations, not states, administer bar exams, yet, states enforce the standards.

Hair braiding

Hair braiding, by flickr user stevendepolo

Over the years, the line has tended to migrate toward more state licensing, such that perhaps 10 percent of all jobs in the United States are governed by occupational licensing, according to the Institute for Justice. What share of those occupational licensing requirements are unneeded isn’t clear to me, but at a minimum, braiding hair should not require a license. The same goes for athletic training, kick boxing, and selling time shares. Likewise, is there any legitimate public purpose served by Washington licensing auctioneers? Telephone solicitors? (You can find more examples of Cascadian licensed occupations here: Alaska, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.)

I suspect the reason for the growth of licensing is not protecting the public interest but, rather, protecting the private interests of those workers who have already got their licenses. Seattle attorney Jeanette Petersen describes the pattern:

Typically, licensing boards are comprised of members of the regulated profession, with the coercive power of government at their disposal. As a result, licensing requirements often exceed valid public health and safety objectives, and instead are used to reduce competition threatened by newcomers. As economist Walter Williams observes, these laws and regulations “discriminate against certain people,” particularly “outsiders, latecomers and the resource­less,” among whom members of minority groups disproportionately are represented.

Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler would recognize this pattern as an instance of regulatory capture. Washington’s statutes give authority over beauty occupations to a Cosmetology, Barbering, Esthetics, and Manicuring Advisory Board. By law, the board must include nine members: one unaffiliated consumer and eight representatives of segments of the trade. This isn’t just foxes guarding hen houses, it’s the state passing a hen house law that reserves eight of nine posts on the Hen House Council for foxes.

These cartel-like politics are what lies behind outrageously divergent licensing rules: 1,600 hours of instruction to get a hair-cutting license in Washington, for example, but only 130 hours to become an Emergency Medical Technician. In fact, you can earn certification as a fire fighter in Washington after just 385 hours of coursework—one-fourth the time it takes to become a stylist. And, as I said at the outset, it takes 1,700 times as long to win legal permission to braid hair in Oregon as it does to get a Food Handler’s Badge.

Still, Cascadia is not the worst example of worker licensing. Louisiana licenses florists. Florida and Nevada license interior designers. And our region already has a reform leader in its ranks. British Columbia stands out among Canadian provinces in de-licensing. It has shifted not just beauty workers but many other trades from official licensing to voluntary certification. That kind of streamlining is exactly what other Northwest jurisdictions can do to clear barriers to gainful employment.

Sadly, legalizing African-style hair braiding, deregulating kickboxing, and otherwise pruning the excesses of occupational licensing in Cascadia is not going to be enough itself to wipe out double-digit unemployment or revive family income growth. A thorough pruning might, however, help thousands of Northwest workers each year, and, in times like these, that’s an opportunity too big to ignore.


We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!



  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    I’d love to see a government position at every level of government purely focused on reading through our goofy laws and proposing ways of fixing them to the legislature.

    When Seattle made it easier to start a street food business, I skimmed through the process imagining I’m licencing a child’s lemonade stand. The lemonade stand would have to be highly profitable, considering the thousands of dollars required for permits, licenses, and equipment, and the amount of paperwork submitted to at least three agencies might take a kid until college to figure out and file. There’s even a public comment process involved. And of course they aren’t allowed to open their stand anywhere near a residential area.

    • Alan Durning says:

      And the process you’re pointing to is the new, streamlined, improved process for licensing food carts! It was much worse before.

  2. Georgie Bright Kunkel says:

    I realize the point made by the hair-braiding article but in the late seventies any person could put out their shingle and advertise they were a mental health counselor without any training whatsoever.
    One of my relatives had ongoing counseling for years and paid for it by working in the office of the non-licensed counselor. Non-licensed because there was no state regulation.

    Doctors, nurses, and many other professional people need to prove
    that they are qualified.

    The whole area of licening needs to be studied and the playing field needs to be leveled. If this means establishing another
    study group, then let’s do it so that essential services requiring special preparation and training be properly liensed or at least registered with the state.

    • Fencepost says:

      “The whole area of licening needs to be studied and the playing field needs to be leveled. If this means establishing another
      study group…”

      So what you are saying is that we should decrease bureaucracy by increasing it? Who exactly are you going to hire to study this? And will they need to be licensed to perform this study?

  3. Ray P. says:

    I can’t imagine that there is enough to barbering to fill 1,700 hours of instruction. Is it really that amount of class time or does that total contain on-the-job training? Are people unwittingly getting their hair cut by “trainees” who, presumably, are getting paid less than licensed barbers?

    • Alan Durning says:

      Ray P.,

      As best I can tell, that’s almost all class time. Some states divide instruction time from apprenticeship. Descriptions here:

  4. Chemjobber says:

    Chemists aren’t certified or licensed at all. (Hazardous waste handlers, of course, need EPA-mandated RCRA classroom training, OSHA training, etc.)

  5. Rachel A says:

    Point taken, but the line may not be where you believe it is. For example, athletic trainers should absolutely be licensed, because they can cause lasting damage to the body and frequently are the first medical personnel to address an injury. It’s one thing for them to be educated and/or certified by professional boards, but if they’re going to be interfacing with local and state medical professionals, it’s probably valuable for them to be licensed, too. So, while a job might seem easy to you, or might seem like there’s no need for licensure, most of those licenses exist for a reason. While I’m all for removing excessive barriers, I’m also happy to know that my trainer knows what’s up as he helps me prevent and recover from injuries.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Athletic trainers should absolutely be well-trained and certified. But should they be licensed by the state? Not all of them do the kind of rehabilitation training that yours has helped you with. Many simply recommend exercise regimes at athletic clubs. To me voluntary certification seems adequate.

      But I’d cede your particular case about athletic trainers, if you’d cede mine: “most those licenses exist for a reason,” you write. In too many cases, the reason is a political story of people protecting their own income from newcomers, not a justification based on protection of public interests that would otherwise be in jeopardy.

  6. Al K says:

    The issue is a problem in construction too, if you don’t work for a construction company. We don’t need a builders board to license carpenter/contractors when regular contract law covers and provides the protection needed. As it is, Jesus couldn’t ply his trade without a license.

    It also applies to Architects, who can’t call themselves architects with out a degree and a current license. That means that today, Frank Lloyd Wright could not legally ply his trade or call himself and architect.

  7. Al K says:

    I should have noted that, a contractors license is not about competence to do the job, it is all about protecting ‘licensed’ contractors from unlicensed contractor/carpenters, with the lame assertion that licensing and bonding requirements were instituted to financially protect the home owner. In reality, a home owner gets very little protection and or compensation when a job goes bad.

  8. Jeffrey Leib says:

    Very interesting article. In the UK some of the things you need licensing for include can driver; street vendor; charity collector; working in gambling industry; selling alcohol; selling hot food/drink between 11pm-6am; running lap-dancing clubs, cinemas, theatres and bars; credit brokers;being a tatooist or landlord; or nightclub doorman…the list goes on!

  9. Jeffrey Leib says:

    I meant cab driver in the above post btw

  10. Rylan R says:

    Being from Louisiana and understanding the anti-guvment sentiment currently gripping the state, I wonder if anyone has ever asked Piyush Jindal about all this excessive guvment intrusion into people’s lives such as licensing flourists and such?? Bet not.

  11. Chad N says:

    Is Washington State Initiative 1163 (home health care workers) another attempt to over-license an industry?

    • Alan Durning says:

      I haven’t studied it, Chad N. Have you?

  12. Michelle D'Allaird-Brenner says:

    The current state of license requirements across the US is out of control.
    Licenses should be mandatory for any type of treatment/service that alters the functioning of the skin (or body); or could cause harm or the spread of infection or disease to a client or patient.
    Esthetics…including chemical peels, dermaplaning and microdermabrasion.
    Permanent Makeup/tattoo

    Its a shame that we can not systematically achieve standardized educational and licensing expectations for such professions. Professional have worked so hard to dedicate their time, effort and energy to raising the standards and levels of the profession are continuously knocked down a notch by those that choose to work out of the realm of ethical standards of practice. Unfortunately, many state regulatory agents do not help the cause. The difference will come from top notch elite educational institutions, and state activists that continue to push to make a difference.

    • Michael H. Wilson says:

      I could not disagree more Michelle. Doctors do a lot of things to the human body and doctors also make a lot of errors. The number of deaths from medical errors may be as high as 100,000 annually. Of course the medical profession is licensed and the agencies that are responsible for licensing in most states have been taken over by the profession.

      What we need instead is a certification process by private companies that will hold their graduates to high standards with penalties for those that don’t.

  13. Michael H. Wilson says:

    Great article Alan and pardon me for pointing this out but in the post Civil War era the Southern states passed a set of laws known as the Black Codes. A part of the codes was a licensing requirement which was intended to keep the newly freed blacks out of the marketplace. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the purpose of licensing is to stop competition, or at least control it.

  14. Tate Matson says:

    False–the homeowner has 10 years to sue the general contractor/sub contractor for construction defects in the State of Washington–

    FYI–Insurance companies only insure licensed and experienced professionals–including hair stylists/barbers–also all landlords at strip malls for example require all tenants to have insurance(basic liability, etc)–if these professionals did not get licensed the insurance companies would not insure them(since they did not meet the insurance requirements)–the licensing, etc serves a purpose and needs to continue.

    • Fencepost says:

      No, they don’t need to be licensed. If they wish to practice unlicensed and without insurance, let free individuals decide whether or not they want to patronize an unlicensed professional.

      Without having to pay for training, licensing, and insurance, I’ll bet the professional will be able to have cheaper rates. That’s the force behind licensing: if licensing (or rather, certification) was optional, the licensees would have a harder time getting work because their rates are higher than the unlicensed. Simple economics.

  15. AMS says:

    How can we change this law? I’m an African-american women who recently decided that I wants to help foster parent and adoptive parents take care of their young (African/ African-american) children’s hair and I just learned today that in order to start my own business reaching out to them I would have to go back to school (I currently have my BS in Biology and Anthropology). I feel like this has set me back. I’m almost willing do it free because I feel their is a big need in my community to offer support to these young girls and their families. I would love to have this law changed, what can I do?

    Portland, OR

    • AMS says:

      Also, I’ve been braiding hair since I was 10 years old (I’m 30 now), learning from older family members with a lot of one-on-one “training.” I would say I have more than 1700 hours of experience. In addition, braiding or styling hair can be and is often done without the use of chemicals or products that alter hair’s structure. So should I be required to take more classes simply to do something I already know how to do?

      I am also unaware of any schools or salons in my area (because I’ve asked around and have tried to get my hair done) that teaches or focuses on “natural hair.” Most salon, even African-American salons don’t often know how to do natural hair, so I do my own hair and “teach” my friends who are going from chemically treated to “natural” hair. How can a state regulate something when the curriculum isn’t holistic and and doesn’t require instructors or students to know how to do untreated African-American hair? I would argue that the current curriculum doesn’t focus on (or gives little emphasis to) African-American hair. This of course is my opinion.

      I think it would be fair to require a certification that focuses on hygiene and health issue same as the food handlers card. However, I think someone is more likely to get sick or ill from improperly prepared food than braided hair. Priorities!!

      Finally, I just want to say I appreciate this story and the conversation is has fostered. :)


      • Alan Durning says:

        Thanks for your comments, AMS.

        For starters, contacting your state legislators would help. I’ll send more suggestions privately.

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>