The Next Cut At The Barbershop Should Be The Occupational Licensing Red Tape

April 18, 2016  |  



Reader Submission By Patrice Lee

This past Friday marked the “Barbershop” movie franchise’s return to theaters. “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is the latest episode in the story of the Chicago barbershop owned by entrepreneur Calvin Palmer Jr., played by Ice Cube. And as was the case in the first “Barbershop” flick, some of the cast of “The Next Cut” likely spent a month or two in barber’s college training for their roles.

But that’s just movie magic. In the real world, even somebody with a God-given talent for cutting hair has to spend significantly more time and money before they can legally claim a chair of their own at a barbershop.

The Illinois state law that would apply to the fictional Calvin Palmer Jr., for example, requires would-be barbers to first acquire an occupational license, pass an exam, and spend 1,500 hours in training that can cost as much as $20,000. For perspective, $31,000 is the median annual earnings of an Illinois barber.

This sad situation doesn’t make an appearance in the “Barbershop” movie, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Occupational licenses present obstacles for many aspiring workers and entrepreneurs across the country. They exist in all 50 states and apply to many professions besides hair care. The White House Council of Economic Advisors reports these licenses apply to more than one quarter of the U.S. workforce.

These licenses supposedly exist to protect public safety, but it’s not clear why the public needs protection from interior designers or monks who build funeral caskets. And the rules often make no sense. Cosmetologists need to spend longer than one year, on average nationwide, to get a license. We’ve all had hair emergencies, but those don’t quite rise to the level of public safety concerns like the work done by emergency medical technicians (EMT), who on average only require 33 days of training for their license.

These needlessly restrictive licenses have huge economic ramifications. Economic advisors working for President Obama found last year that occupational licenses raise the costs of goods and services by as much as 16 percent. These licenses have also resulted in 2.85 million fewer jobs, particularly for lower-income workers and people of color. The Black community can’t afford these lost chances to earn a living. We experienced 9 percent unemployment this past March—far higher than the general population and double the rate of white unemployment.

It wasn’t always this way—people of color used to be able to work without paying the government for permission to do so; hair care is just one historically relevant example. By the late 1930s, beauty shops and barbershops were two of the top three most numerous Black-owned businesses in Chicago. Later surveys in the 1940s found similarly large numbers of Black-owned hair care businesses across the country.

Some Black Americans even found great success through this work. Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who came of age in Reconstruction-era Georgia, got his start working as a barber, eventually creating a barbershop empire of his own. Madame C.J. Walker overcame the soul-crushing obstacles the early 20thcentury imposed on women of color and became America’s first self-made Black female millionaire by creating hair products specifically designed for Black women, forming the foundation for a $9 billion industry.

Neither Herndon nor Madam Walker may have been as successful if they had to contend with the restrictive occupational licensing regime that has spread across the country. Since the 1950s, the number of licensed workers has quintupled in size.

Although some are able to wade through this red tape, others get trapped in it. In recent years, Salamata Sylla, an African immigrant in Washington State, couldn’t work as a hair braider unless she spent as much as $20,000 and took the requisite 1,600 hours of unnecessary training in cosmetology school to earn a government license.

Salamata Sylla deserves an opportunity to prove herself as the next C.J. Walker, but as the Brookings Institution warns, occupational licensing damages social mobility. Professionals moving to another state may suddenly find their license does not transfer. Some states can even revoke licenses if you default on student loans.

And if you’ve served time, there’s a strong chance you are prohibited for life from holding the occupational license you need to do your job. Some states prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from holding occupational licenses. Illinois does this for 118 professions, including barbers. Michael Ealy’s character from the first two “Barbershop” movies spent time in prison; in real life he would’ve never been allowed to cut hair.

It’s time we ask ourselves if the limited public safety benefits and the false reassurance of a government-stamped piece of paper are worth denying people a chance to earn a living. White House officials certainly don’t think so, having urged states to rethink their occupational licensing laws. Some states are following that guidance, with the Illinois legislature currently considering a bill that would permit some formerly convicted workers to earn occupational licenses, while a North Carolina bill would streamline the state’s occupational licensing boards.

While “Barbershop: The Next Cut” won’t prominently mention occupational licenses, the sad reality is they’re a major concern for barbers and millions of other Americans off-screen. The next cut should be to the red tape that prevents so many from showing up to work.

Patrice Lee is the national spokesperson of Generation Opportunity.

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