changing licensing laws

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Why It's Illegal to Cut Hair in Kentucky: The Case for Changing Licensing Laws


By Debbie Miller

Regional regulations mean licensed professionals can’t practice across state lines. Here’s how that could change.

Today’s salon and spa businesses are experiencing a massive shortage of talent and struggling to fill job openings. While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role in that reality, so does the fact that the Board of Cosmetology is not relatable to the Gen C (Generation Covid) professional. New entrants into the workforce want the freedom to exercise their creative muscles and the flexibility to practice anywhere, but state-issued licenses don’t translate across state lines. Meanwhile, hours requirements are inconsistent; professionals might need anywhere from 1,000 to 2,100 hours to earn the same licenses to do the same jobs. The current system doesn’t work, but there are opportunities to change it.

Here’s the scoop on licensing laws, the problem with today’s regulations, and a vision for the future of license mobility.

What’s the deal with license mobility?

Beauty school is demanding. But after all the hours and effort required to graduate, earning a barbering or cosmetology license in one state does not guarantee your ability to practice in another state. Recognizing licenses nationwide is a practical and legitimate option that certain states have implemented with great success. Illinois, Florida, and Arizona, for example, use universal licensing recognition to allow licensed professionals from other states to practice legally within their borders.

But in other states, licensing laws have remained stagnant for decades. Instead of modernizing to meet the needs of our increasingly mobile society, many states cannot legally recognize licenses issued elsewhere. Meanwhile, salon owners have jobs waiting and chairs open. Despite their desire to increase revenue and invest in business management solutions, license limitations make it hard for salon management to make progress.

As eager as salons are to hire experienced professionals, licensed cosmetologists are eager to find fulfilling work. But the more difficult it is to obtain a license, the more likely those professionals are to either practice without the proper licensing or leave the industry altogether. These trends feed the stigma of low-paying jobs and high attrition rates as a beauty industry norm.

Showdown: reciprocity vs. compact mobility

Today’s conversation around licensing laws is dominated by two prevailing models: reciprocity and compact mobility. In short, reciprocity is onerous and ineffective, while compact mobility could herald a Gen C-friendly future, if legislation passes in mid-2022.


Under reciprocity, cosmetology and barbering professionals that move outside the state where they are licensed must apply to the State Licensing Bureau for permission to work in their new state. The fees pile up fast: filing paperwork, additional education, and re-testing all come with costs. Some states require proof of tenure (3-5 years of good standing and employment), which disqualifies highly desirable Gen C Quad A professionals who are licensed but have less than 3 years of experience.

Compact Mobility

Compact mobility creates contracts between states, allowing each state to recognize licenses issued in the other. Driver’s licenses are a good example; wherever your US driver’s license was issued, you can still drive anywhere in the country without additional fees, testing, or licensing requirements. The Council of State Governments and the Department of Defense partnered on interstate compact legislation that would grant cosmetology and barbering professionals full nationwide mobility. But that legislation has to be approved by state legislatures and signed into law by each state’s governor. There are many potential speed bumps on the road to true license freedom with compact mobility.

The answer isn’t deregulation, it’s reform

So long as each state has its own hours requirements, the relationship between hours required and earnings breaks down. Longer educational programs incur higher costs for students, which usually means a higher federal student debt load. In the past two years, 11 states have lowered their hours requirements for beauty industry licensing. Some states require 1,000 hours, others require upwards of 2,100 hours. For real licensing mobility to be possible, hours and testing requirements must be standardized nationwide. Issuing nationally recognized cosmetology licenses would also increase client confidence.

One of the most promising proposals being discussed in the beauty industry right now is pre-graduate testing. Currently, less than 70% of all beauty school students graduate. In an ideal world, students would have the opportunity to sit for certain exams at the 50% and 75% marks in their beauty school programs. Instead of failing post-graduation and backing up the already clogged pipeline while re-testing (all without the ability to earn wages in the industry), pre-grad testing would give students the opportunity to brush up on skills while still enrolled, allowing more of them to successfully become licensed and join the workforce. Higher graduation rates mean more licensed professionals earning wages, paying taxes, and repaying student loans.

While some organizations argue that licensing is altogether unnecessary for a number of industries, doing away with cosmetology license requirements isn’t the answer. In fact, it would be dangerous if anyone could open a salon and serve clients without training, education, and safety standards set and maintained by a central institution in the industry. That’s why organizations like the Professional Beauty Association (PBA), the Future of the Beauty Industry Coalition (FBIC), and the International SalonSpa Business Network (ISBN) are leading the charge toward licensing mobility.

The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate licensing altogether, it should be to remove the barriers to licensing and create a nationally recognized industry standard that supports workers. Hair is hair — why aren’t all stylists created equal from state to state? Hopefully, they soon will be.

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