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A History Lesson: Licensure & Professionalism

, licensing, licensure, regulation, cosmetology license

Originally published here by Fred Jones

Most of my professional life has been spent in the hallowed halls of public agencies and legislative bodies, developing and reforming laws and regulations that govern the livelihood of literally millions of people. Admittedly, most of my work has been one of stopping well-intentioned ideas that would become a nightmare if actually enacted and enforced. As such, I have developed my share of cynicism about government competence, political compromises, and bureaucratic meddling.

At a profound and practical level, I understand the shortcomings and limitations of government oversight. I am not one who therefore turns to "Big Brother" for the cure for every illness afflicting society, at large, and our industry, more specifically.

But one thing has become crystal clear to me about our world of barbering and beauty and its relationship with statutory and regulatory regimes:

... state licensure is inseparably tied to our overall level of professionalism.

While it is certainly true that many beauty professionals and salons would maintain their high standards in a total regulatory vacuum, the overall trajectory of industry practices is unequivocally influenced by the laws and regulations governing our services.

There are always those who would push the ethical and safety boundaries to make a quick buck. Such is human nature. But this isn't my primary concern or justification for preserving licensure of our industry.

My respect for tradition and long-held industry practices are the reasons why I think the growing calls for radical cuts to educational standards and dramatic reductions in our licensed scopes of practice deserve our united opposition.

Consider the history and context of beauty services in America. Our's is an industry that has been built on a system of formal education and apprenticing. And for the past century those with the requisite skill and proven competencies have been licensed and regulated by state agencies as means of assuring the protection of our consumers. Barbering services have been licensed by my state of California since the 1920s.

The pre-licensing training leads to a state administered exam that assesses minimal competencies — primarily safety protocols — to make sure licensed professionals are safe operators. Salons and individual practitioners have been regulated to provide assurances that a licensed facility and a licensed stylist will -- at the very least -- not harm those who patronize our salons and barbershops.

But if harm does befall on our clientele, the consumer has someone to turn to for immediate action. The State Board has a host of remedies to address unsafe practices that result in a client's harm, from monetary sanctions to salon closure. These immediate and severe consequences are much more relevant to stylists, salons owners and the public, at large, than a bad Yelp review or drawn out litigation that usually end with confidential settlements years down the road.

A well-regulated industry counterbalances the many market incentives for competing salons and individual stylists to play fast-and-loose with their procedures, equipment and facilities. State Board oversight, therefore, helps establish and maintain industry-wide standards, elevating everyone's professional practices.

While there would always be a limited market for high-end and/or rigorously safe salon operations who's prices reflect the costs associated with these best practices, I fear far too many salons would compete in a mad race to the bottom. Their priorities would be price-points and aggressive marketing rather than safety and professionalism.

One doesn't need to have some sort of deep-seated faith in government to appreciate the fact that the entire beauty industry has been built upon the concept of licensure -- from schools to salons, from young apprentices to full-fledged licensed stylists. In those few areas of beauty services where there isn't a formal regulatory structure, public safety and our industry's overall reputation are at greater risk of being undermined by bad actors.

The tide of our industry will ebb and flow with the regulations governing our industry. And while we should strive to align those laws to the realities of responsible and profitable beauty practices, we should acknowledge and embrace the inseparability of licensure and professionalism.

The State has a pivotal role to play in conveying the simple truth that if one wants to earn a living in this industry, one should gain the knowledge and competencies to safely and professionally perform beauty services, which at a minimum includes a license to practice. And as the professional tide rises, every boat — be they stylists, salon owners or the public — will rise together.

Efforts of policymakers to chip away at our licensed scope of practice, to diminish the testing of minimal competencies, or reduce the necessary level of pre-licensing training/education should be unitedly opposed by every stakeholder in this industry.