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Massachusetts revamps its licensing of professions and trades

  • Matthew Haskins, owner of Matt's Barber Shop in Amherst, trims the sideburns of Joel Bias of Northampton last week.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Matt Haskins, owner of Matt's Barber Shop in Amherst, trims hair on January 10, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Matthew Haskins, owner of Matt's Barber Shop in Amherst, touches up Michael Greenebaum of Amherst's hair last week.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Barber sign

Matthew Haskins takes great pride in being called a master barber.

It’s a designation that took him more than two years to earn under a state licensing system that ranks among the toughest in the nation. In Massachusetts, barbers who achieve master status must put in 1,000 classroom hours, pass a licensing exam and complete an 18-month internship.

Haskins, 29, who owns Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, supports the idea of barber schools but believes those requirements are excessive.

Other licensed professionals in Massachusetts, including some who deal with health and safety, have far less stringent requirements. Emergency medical technicians, for instance, need to complete just 100 hours of classroom and field training and 10 hours of in-hospital observation.

A recent report called “License to Work” highlights even more startling inconsistencies in licensing requirements nationwide. According to the report, the average cosmetologist spends 372 days in training; for the average EMT, that figure is 33.

“License to Work” also notes that 66 occupations have greater average license burdens than EMTs.

Streamlining under way

Massachusetts officials acknowledge that some regulations are in need of updating and in some cases streamlining. A review that’s now under way is expected to lead to the improvement or even the repeal of many regulations.

“There are definitely some issues we will be looking at as we go through the regulatory reform process,” said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, in an interview with the Gazette on Friday.

The key, she said, is to strike a fair balance between protecting public health without blocking people from entering much-needed professions. That balance is constantly under analysis, she said.

In Massachusetts, barbers and EMTs are just two of dozens of occupations that require licensing — a wide-ranging list that includes everything from physicians to funeral directors to sheet metal workers to occupational school sales representatives.

An occupational license is essentially government permission to work in a field. To earn the license, an individual must complete requirements involving classroom time, hands-on training and/or successful grades on an examination.

Many of those occupations are governed by the Division of Professional Licensure, which falls within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. DPL oversees 31 boards of registration, which license and regulate more than 365,000 individuals and businesses.

Other professions, including EMTs, physicians and lawyers, are licensed by other state departments.

Licensing is intended to protect public health and safety and provide a fair and competitive marketplace. But the national “License to Work” report by the Virginia-based Institute for Justice takes a different view.

The report concludes that Massachusetts and nearly every other state in the nation impose arbitrary and irrational requirements that keep would-be workers from entering new fields. And thanks to the law of supply and demand, that can lead to higher prices for consumers.

“The difficulty of entering an occupation often does not line up with the public health or safety risk it poses,” wrote Dick Carpenter, a social scientist and the report’s primary author.

The study examined licensing laws for 102 low- and moderate-income occupations in all states and measured how burdensome those laws are for aspiring workers. Massachusetts ranks in the middle. On average, the state requires license applicants to pay a fee of $181, obtain 293 days of training and education and pass one exam.

Rationale for licenses

Anthony said that while the report raises legitimate public policy issues, she believes its analysis is “superficial” and ignores the background of why regulation is in place as well as the ways it benefits consumers.

“The report, for all of its focus, does sweep too broadly,” she said. “It doesn’t look behind the rationale for the licenses.”

Anthony points to the case of home improvement contractors, who must register with the state and pay an annual fee. (Registration is different from licensure and does not require the same training and education requirements.) There are now 28,000 registered home improvement contractors in Massachusetts.

She said registration has played a key role in cleaning up a once-corrupt industry.

Twenty years ago, home improvement contractors were at the forefront of a foreclosure scam that took advantage of the elderly and others, particularly in inner cities. Anthony, who at the time worked in the attorney general’s office investigating such cases, said the contractors would convince homeowners to finance expensive — and sometimes unnecessary — repairs by tapping the equity in their homes. The contractors took the money up front. And then, when the homeowners could not afford to repay the home equity loans, the banks would foreclose.

Anthony said government oversight was the only way to protect consumers.

“The industry has cleaned itself up since then,” she said.

Reforms in the works

Significant reforms are now in the works, Anthony said. Last March Gov. Deval Patrick ordered state agencies to review hundreds of regulations.

“We’re taking a look at what we have on the books now,” said April Anderson Lamoureux, assistant secretary for economic development and the state’s regulatory ombudsman. “The vast majority (of the regulations) will be recommended for repeal or improvement. ... Everything here is on the table.”

State agencies have reviewed about 450 sets of regulations out of an estimated 2,000, and have proposed 286 changes. Some of the recommended changes will affect professions and trades under the DPL, Anderson said.

The recommendations include consolidating the boards of registration for barbers, cosmetologists and electrologists into a new Board of Registration of Cosmetology and Barbering; eliminating the Board of Registration of Radio and Television Technicians because consumers now buy new electronics instead of repairing them; and putting a cap “at reasonable levels” on workforce re-entry fees for licensed specialists. Currently, for example, a massage therapist who stopped working in the profession for four years would have to pay a $652 re-entry fee.

Other changes would allow part-time employees to work at more than one funeral home, eliminate a two-week closure of salons during an ownership change and streamline the process by which architects apply for licenses.

More changes are in the offing. Anderson said the goal is to make the process easier for licensees to navigate without weakening safety and health standards.

“We don’t want to reduce any protections for the public, but we recognize some of these rules are fairly old,” Anderson said.

Additionally, Anthony said DPL expects to launch a new e-licensing system within the next year in which professionals and tradespeople can renew their licenses, pay fines and complete other tasks online.

How much training is too much?

Haskins, the Amherst barber, is an advocate of having prospective barbers attend barber schools in order to be licensed. Students not only learn technique; they also acquire essential training about public health and sanitation techniques, he says.

But he says there’s room for improvement.

“There’s a lot of filler time in those hours,” he said of the 1,000-hour classroom requirement.

Haskins has been a barber for nine years and opened the shop that bears his name about five years ago. He says there’s a shortage of barbers in the commonwealth right now.

“There’s a need for the schools,” he said. “To have a guaranteed middle-class living for $15,000 and seven months’ worth of your time, it’s a home run in my opinion.”

In addition to barbers, the “License to Work” report identifies other professions with tough entry standards, including commercial heating, ventilation and air conditioning and commercial sheet metal contractors. Licensed workers in those industries must train for 1,458 days and 1,225 days in Massachusetts, respectively, compared to national averages of 891 and 507 days, the report said.


The report also found that Massachusetts licenses a dozen occupations that fewer than half of other states license. The Bay State is one of just three states that license home entertainment installers, one of 10 that license residential painting contractors and one of seven that license social and human services assistants.

In Massachusetts, the Legislature decides which occupations the state should regulate and then turns to licensing boards to set specific rules. Board members are appointed by the governor and serve on a voluntary basis.

In the “License to Work” report Carpenter said the system makes sense on its surface, but he cautioned that in many cases industry pushes for regulation as a way to shut potential competitors out.

Anthony counters that this isn’t always the case. Home improvement contractors, for instance, did not welcome oversight, she says. She points to other professions, too, where licensing has been critical in protecting the public — even if it doesn’t seem so on the surface.

“On the face of it, it’s easy to say, Why do you need to go to school to file nails?” Anthony said.

But, she continued, “A lot of these people are coming into their house or they are touching your body.” She said the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation has fielded numerous complaints about massage therapy shops fronting for prostitution and human trafficking rings. It has also handled cases in which psychologists and social workers have been involved in sexual abuse.

Anthony said licensing has to address two issues: the need to protect the public and the need to allow people to practice their chosen professions or trades.

“We certainly appreciate the balance that has to be struck here,” she said.


How to check a license (and where to complain)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Choosing a tradesperson or professional can be daunting — there are, after all, 365,000 of them licensed by the state’s Department of Professional Licensure. That’s why DPL officials urge people to do a little work up front to avoid potential problems down the road. First, check to make sure the tradesperson or professional is licensed by going to license.reg.state.ma.us/public/licque.asp. In …

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