Barbers: Automation vs Occupational Licensing

We continue to be on guard for industries in which workers are likely to be replaced by machines and automation. Food service and accommodations, transportation, and retail are all expected to be taken over by automated processes. Employment numbers in the manufacturing sector continue to dwindle as machines take on the bulk of the work.

Yet, barbers, hairdressers and cosmetologists, are often not given the credit they deserve as some of the most resilient occupations, withstanding any of the twists and turns of the economy. However, occupational licensing of these persistent professions might be creating the most damage.

Consistent with self-esteem issues

These professions are not only resilient to bad economic times, but also to changing factors of production. The reason is because it involves unpredictable physical work and applying some level of expertise. For example, despite the introduction of new and different technologies, barbering hasn’t changed much. Since 5000 B.C. to 2017, there has been a man taking a simple razor to another man’s scalp and face — but with finesse.

WorkactivitiesautomatedIt wasn’t until 1897 that Minnesota implemented the first barber’s license. It was meant to “prescribe sanitary practices for barbering, and it stipulated minimum educational and technical requirements for barbers in the state.” At the surface, it looks as if this law is looking out for the consumer’s best interests; in particular, the public health.

However, before the law was passed, a group of high-brow barbers wanted to give their profession more prestige. They essentially unionized themselves, creating status positions such as “boss barber” and “master barber.” In 1887, the Journeyman Barbers International Union was formed. Today, this same union is called The Journeyman Barbers’, Hairdressers’, Cosmetologists’ and Proprietors’ International Union of America. This group lobbied heavily for licensing laws to be put into action to finally formalize barbering.

Nothing about the actual practice of barbering changed, but now, in order to be a barber, one would have to overcome these artificial barriers created by a group of barbers who wanted to feel special back in the day. The quick history lesson is just to highlight why occupational licenses really come into existence. It’s not about public health, but it’s to build the reputation of the occupation.

While there is no problem with workers getting together and making the good ol’ boys club, it is a problem when governments put up the walls that force people to unnecessarily climb over to get into the club.

It just doesn’t make sense

The Institute of Justice produced a comprehensive report listing which states have licenses for low-income occupations. All 50 states license barbers, manicurists and cosmetologists. In Florida, to apply for a barber’s license one must pass 1,200 hours of formal training. Then, you have to cough up $223 for the license!

Now, compare that with an emergency medical technician (EMT). To become a technician that deals with life or death situations regularly, Florida only requires 250 hours of classroom instruction, skills practice in a laboratory, hospital emergency room and ambulance experience and a field internship. Oh, and the license costs $105 (which includes application and exam fee).

How does this make sense?

Takeaway

This isn’t to degrade the profession of barbering or other low-/middle-income occupations, but it is to shine light on how some of these licensing laws are not necessarily put in place to “look after the consumer.” These laws increase the cost of the services they are providing. Today, the average haircut in the U.S. costs $28 for men and $44 for women. Though some of the blame can go to the high costs of rents, the culprit also goes to these unnecessary licensing laws that keep people from being able to legally open up shop in their living room or garage or rent a chair at the local barber.

Moreover, occupational licensing laws hinder workers who are affected by not only negative slumps in the economy but also by industry automation, from getting into these resilient industries and staying afloat. It’s like we would rather see people unemployed and using up government resources instead of being entrepreneurial and picking up a new, yet classic, profession.

It’s not automation and the rise of robots who threaten barbers’ jobs — it’s licensing.

Previously posted at GenFKD.

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