Questionable Burdens

Our data also suggest many licenses are, if not unnecessary, unnecessarily burdensome. First, many licensing requirements do not appear rationally related to public health and safety—the ostensible justification for imposing these burdens on workers. Some occupations pose little risk to consumers or the public at large and yet are subject to onerous licensing requirements. 

Makeup artist licenses, for example, require an average of 128 days of education and experience, two exams, and over $173 in fees. Licenses for shampooers, also known as salon or shampoo assistants, require an average of 207 days of education and experience, two exams, and over $124 in fees. Often, these licenses are not specific to makeup artists or shampooers. Rather, they are often full cosmetology, barbering, hair dressing or esthetician licenses. For example, seven states require full cosmetology licensure for shampooers. 1  This means aspiring makeup artists and shampooers are spending large amounts of time and money learning how to provide services that are irrelevant to the jobs they want to do.

Some of these occupations are subject to more onerous requirements than others that pose greater risks to the public. Workers in 71 occupations face greater average burdens than entry-level emergency medical technicians even though EMTs’ work is often a matter of life and death. As Figure 19 shows, the occupations include makeup artist, shampooer, and all the other barbering and beauty occupations in our sample, along with auctioneer, residential painting contractor and taxi driver/chauffeur—all low-risk occupations.

For perspective, the average cosmetologist must complete nearly 10 times as much training as the average EMT (342 days vs. 36 days), while the average manicurist (the least burdensome beauty occupation we study) must complete more than twice as much (85 days vs. 36 days). Given that there is no reason to believe EMTs are underregulated, this suggests these other occupations are overregulated.

Figure 19: Health and Safety?

Several low-risk occupations face higher average education and experience burdens than emergency medical technicians

Second, states often impose wildly different licensing requirements on the same occupations even though occupational risks are unlikely to vary much across states. 

The most egregious differences often occur with education and experience requirements. Fifty-one of the 102 occupations studied see differences of more than 1,000 estimated calendar days lost between the minimum and maximum education and experience requirements, as Figure 20 shows. Another eight see differences of more than 700 days.

The largest differences amount to several years. For example, while five states require no education or experience for commercial HVAC contractors, Rhode Island requires aspirants to spend eight years working under a licensed contractor before it will give them their own license—a difference of 2,920 days. The other 31 states that license the occupation require between less than a day and six years of education and experience, including Louisiana, which requires only a brief online course. 

Figure 20: Widely Varied Licensing Burdens 

For 51 occupations, days lost to education and experience mandates varies by 1,000 days or more

College Degrees

Several of the large discrepancies in days lost shown in Figure 20 reflect very different educational regimes for the same occupation—states that require college degrees and others that require less or even no education. For example, Georgia requires a bachelor’s degree for head coaches for public high school sports, while Delaware requires only one hour of education. In addition to coach, occupations for which some states require a bachelor’s degree and others do not include public preschool teacher, interior designer, sign language interpreter and midwife. In other occupations, at least one state requires an associate degree and others do not. These include family child care home, fire alarm installer, massage therapist, optician, security alarm installer and tree trimmer. 2  

Recognition is growing that too many jobs require a college degree. Requiring a college degree reduces the labor pool, which, like licensing in general, raises prices for consumers and reduces access to services. And it especially burdens people on the first few rungs of the economic ladder, including people from lower-income backgrounds, racial and ethnic minorities, and other historically disadvantaged groups. 3

Since the second edition of License to Work, some states have repealed college degree requirements. For instance, four states—Arizona, Kentucky, New Mexico and Wisconsin—that previously required a bachelor’s degree for sign language interpreters now allow aspirants to choose an alternate pathway requiring only an associate degree. 4  While this still represents a substantial and likely unnecessary burden given that eight states require no college degree for the occupation, it is an improvement over the seven states that continue to require a bachelor’s degree.

Minimum Grade Requirements

States sometimes require a high school diploma, or a minimum grade level short of high school graduation, for licensure. Unlike college degree requirements, these requirements are not reflected in days lost to education and experience, but they can still present substantial burdens for aspiring workers. And when such requirements are not rationally related to health and safety, these burdens are unnecessary.

Take cosmetologists and barbers, both universally licensed occupations. Though high school does not teach beauty service sanitation techniques, let alone haircutting techniques, 15 states require high school graduation for cosmetologists, while 14 require the same for barbers. Nineteen states require some high school short of graduation for cosmetologist licensure, and 12 require the same for barbers. All told, for 40% of the occupations we study, at least one state sets a minimum grade for licensure, while at least one state does not (Figure 21), calling into question whether such requirements are needed.

States are starting to recognize the irrationality of such requirements, though it has sometimes taken a lawsuit to spur reform. California repealed a law prohibiting vocational schools from enrolling people without a high school education only after IJ sued and won a victory before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 5  And in 2020, the Beacon Center of Tennessee won a lawsuit challenging the state’s high school graduation requirement for barbers. 6 Maine, Vermont and New Mexico have also eliminated high school grade requirements for various beauty occupations in recent years.

Figure 21: Questionable Grade Mandates

For 40% of occupations, at least one state imposes a minimum grade requirement, while other licensed states do not


States also vary in terms of how many exams they require to practice the same occupation. For example, Nevada requires aspiring opticians to pass seven exams for licensure, while New Hampshire requires none. That is an extreme example, but discrepancies of at least two exams are not at all uncommon: For 65% of the 102 occupations, we see differences of two or more exams between the state with the fewest exams and the state with the most (Figure 22).

Licensing exams generally fall into two categories, written and practical, both of which can pose unique difficulties. Written exams can be challenging for people, such as immigrants, who face a language barrier. 7 But they can also pose a problem for those who know the material but who have poor test-taking skills. For example, in 2015, the written trade skills exams required for eight different Florida contractor occupations had failure rates for first-time test-takers of 40% or more. Perhaps daunted by the exam or other requirements, only three people applied for Florida’s sheet metal trade knowledge exam that year, and they all failed it on their first try. 8 In 2016, the state’s fire alarm contractor exam had a 65% failure rate, and its residential construction contractor exam had a 75% failure rate. 9  Florida has since made the exam optional for all these trades. 10

Practical exams can be even more burdensome for some aspirants. In contrast to written exams, which can sometimes be completed online at a time of the test-taker’s choosing, practical exams often require the test-taker to appear in person at a prescribed time and place. Test-takers must sometimes bring their own equipment and supplies 11 —even, as in the case of cosmetology, their own live models or mannequin heads. 12  Practical exams also tend to be offered less frequently than written exams.

In recent years, several states have reduced exam requirements. In 2017, Missouri eliminated the three written exams it required of aspiring head coaches for public high school sports, 13 bringing the state in line with the 34 other states with no exams for the occupation. Georgia, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia, meanwhile, each still require aspiring coaches to pass three separate tests. The other eight states that license coaches require one or two exams. Similarly, Alaska removed its written exam for manicurists.

In 2022, California eliminated practical exams for all six beauty occupations we study in this report. 14  Yet many states still require practical exams for these occupations.

Figure 22: Questionable Exam Mandates

For 65% of occupations, the number of required exams differs by two or more