On Nov. 3, 1896, Utah’s Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her own husband and three other male candidates to become the first female state senator in the United States. Cannon, a successful medical doctor and a staunch advocate for women’s rights and public safety, would no doubt understand the need to balance consumer safety with women’s desire to work in certain fields.
State governments require workers in many fields to have licenses to practice, including doctors, beauticians, emergency medical technicians and florists, among others. These rules are referred to as occupational licensing. Occupations that require a license and the rules associated with each vary by state.
Occupational licensing regulations nominally exist to protect consumers from any harm associated with an unqualified worker. Would you want to receive medical treatment from an unqualified doctor? Of course not. That is why every state has chosen to require medical doctors be licensed. But sometimes these regulations enter the realm of the absurd. For example, would you feel comfortable purchasing a floral arrangement or receiving a pedicure from someone who is not licensed by the government? Probably.
Unfortunately, the scope of occupational licensing has moved far beyond protecting consumer safety and has become more a matter of protecting the profits of businesses instead of protecting you and me.
In 2015, over 1,100 occupations were regulated in at least one state in the country, but fewer than 60 were regulated in all 50 states. If occupational licensing is meant to protect consumer safety, why doesn’t every state require that florists be licensed, as they are in Louisiana? Or that upholsterers be licensed, as they are in Utah and several other states?
In some cases, occupational licenses can be an unnecessary barrier to entry. One well-known example is that of Jestina Clayton, an immigrant living in Utah who, in 2006, began braiding hair to support her family. She received the go-ahead from the Utah State Board of Cosmetology to braid without a license.
Years later, someone threatened to report her for being unlicensed. When she went back to the board, it told her she needed a license that would require 2,000 hours to obtain and would teach her nothing about hair braiding. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that a license was unnecessary for Clayton to provide for her family through hair braiding.
These laws not only raise prices for consumers, but they also have a direct impact on women in Utah. An estimated 96 percent of nail technicians in Utah are women. Nail technicians in Utah are required to receive at least 300 hours of training — almost twice the 160 hours of training emergency medical technicians (EMTs) receive. If our state is going to require a barrier of entry to the workforce for nail technicians, we ought to consider decreasing the amount of training required of them to equal that of an aspiring EMT — someone who literally saves lives.
Taking a look at our current licensing laws and getting rid of unnecessary burdens that prevent qualified women from entering the workforce would benefit both women and our economy.
Martha Hughes Cannon fought for policies that protected consumers. At the same time, she argued for policies that helped — not hindered — professional women. Today, more than 61 percent of Utah women over the age of 16 participate in the labor force — a rate that is higher than the national average. Occupational licensing has become an unnecessary burden for many of these women. It is time for Utah to examine this bipartisan issue and pioneer the path toward more economic freedom for both men and women.
Jacob Caldwell and Camille Harmer are economics students and research fellows at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.