Whenever the Republicans talk about regulations hurting business, they are talking about things like a meat packing plant being required to shut down the line at certain intervals to wash the floors, something that new technologies in flooring has made unnecessary. The regulation had purpose when it was written. It helped keep workers from slipping on the wet floor into the sausage machine. But if you have paid attention to the flooring in the produce department of your supermarket, you have probably seen one form of new flooring designed to prevent slipping, rubber, knobby floors that are hell on spike heels.
The regulations that Republicans don’t talk about are licensing laws. Take, for example, a Utah law that requires a license for “African hair-braiding.” It requires two years of school and $16,000 in tuition. On the other end of the spectrum are those states that don’t even require licensing for plumbers and electricians. Those places are downright dangerous. There are over 1,000 “professions” in America that require licenses, often involving schooling, tuition and fees paid to state or local governments for the licenses themselves.
But how many of those licensing requirements are really necessary? We need a middle ground where we could rewrite licensing laws to encourage new business or make acquiring a skill affordable, and recognize the need to license certain professions for the safety of others.
Way back in the dark ages, well, actually from the time mankind started organizing in towns and cities and developed certain skilled trades until around the 1960s in America, there were trade unions and trade guilds. These organizations were charged with the process of teaching their trade to young men and women and certifying these students at various levels of expertise. Typically, one began as an apprentice, worked through journeyman and finally reached master level. Only a master could train others. There were certain minimum standards for each level, agreed upon by the union or guild and the local government, and very strict rules about what a person could do at each level. Okay, admittedly, some of these unions and guilds were totally corrupt, but the basic idea was always a good one. In any manual profession, from African hair braiding to plumbing, this idea beats the daylights out of book learning and schools. They also put the student in the ultimate work-study program. The beginning trainee in a beauty salon would be paid minimum wage to sweep floors and wash down the equipment as he/she was starting the apprenticeship training. The beginning plumber would be paid minimum wage to drive the truck, carry the tools, mop up the mess.
About twenty years ago, I saw a PBS program on apprenticeship programs in Germany and Japan. They went far beyond the manual trades. In Japan, 16-year-olds were apprenticed to banks and slowly worked their way up the skill levels until the Japanese bank executive sitting across the table from an American with a Harvard MBA might easily have never gone beyond 10th grade in formal schools. The banks provided whatever additional formal education their employees needed. In Germany, manufacturers formed partnerships with schools so that 15 and 16 years olds were working while they completed their secondary educations.
As recently as 40 years ago, it was still possible in some states to become a lawyer without attending law school. One could apprentice with a lawyer and “read the law” and then take the bar exam just like someone who had attended law school.
Apprenticeship programs were the normal route for young men who were expected to only complete as much book learning as necessary to meet the needs of employers. In the earliest days of American public education, that was third or fourth grade. It reached eighth grade by the 1930s. In 1940, less than half of all Americans graduated from high school and only 6% graduated from college.
So, consider this scenario. Instead of two years of school and $16,000 in debt, a young person learns the hair styling trade while working in a salon. After being certified by the “master” in the salon, that person is able to open his/her own salon without the burden of education debt on top of the debts incurred in opening a business. The same time frame is involved, two years or so, depending on the basic talents of the apprentice, but it is time spent dealing with real customers, learning more than just how to style hair, but the hard realities of owning and running a business. The education is broader and more applicable to the real world, but the training in the technical specifics of things like braiding and hair extensions is identical. The apprentice might choose to take a couple of community college courses in things like small business accounting to increase his/her knowledge base for owning a business.
There are some small efforts being made to partner businesses with schools, but no one is addressing the way changing licensing laws could expand the ability of young people to be trained in certain fields. We have spent so much time restricting the way we think about education that we are restricting the pathways people could take to start careers and small businesses.