A $12,000 Haircut

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina—Amar welcomed me into his home with fruit and Syrian coffee. I had come for a haircut—the first Amar would give since leaving Egypt earlier this year.

Cutting hair is how the Damascus native supported his family while living in Cairo for nine years after escaping Syria’s civil war. He first started at age 15—about 20 years ago—and he’s loved doing it ever since.

“As soon as he got off the plane, it was like, ‘How can I be a barber?’” said Ben Marsh, a local Christian pastor helping Amar, his wife Salwah, and their two sons settle into their new life in America.

Five months after moving to North Carolina, Amar’s still trying to answer that question. His roadblock has been the state’s occupational licensing requirements for barbers—which, according to a 2018 brief from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, are the fifth most stringent such requirements in the country.

Because Marsh and I were guests in Amar’s family’s home rather than customers in a shop, our haircuts were legal. But to operate commercially, Amar would need to jump through an elaborate set of hoops. Prospective barbers in North Carolina must attend barber school for 1,528 hours—a number set in law by the state legislature. The cost of attending one of the 51 such schools in the state ranges from $3,000 to $20,000, according to Dennis Seavers, the executive director of the state Board of Barber Examiners. Tuition and fees at the school in Winston-Salem closest to Amar amount to more than $12,000, and the program runs for 44 weeks.

After barber school, would-be barbers must take two exams, one written and one practical. Then comes an application to be an “apprentice” barber—“a form of licensure where they can do almost everything that a registered barber can do with just some small differences,” Seavers said. For a year an apprentice barber works under a registered barber, who must be in the barber shop every time the apprentice cuts someone’s hair. Then comes another practical exam before becoming a registered barber.

According to Seavers, the Board of Barber Examiners, established in 1929, exists to “make sure that people who perform barber services do so in a way that limits the chance of spreading disease or injuring a client.” Public health and safety concerns are why occupational licensing requirements exist for any profession.

“While reasonable people can disagree about where exactly you should draw the line, I think occupational licensing, in my experience, is very good at trying to recognize the need to not have the government be intrusive, but still protect the public,” Seavers said.

That aspiration doesn’t always translate to reality. North Carolina barbers, fire alarm installers, and school bus drivers all require more education and training than the state’s emergency medical technicians (EMTs), according to Institute for Justice research—a pattern that suggests that variables other than public safety may be influencing outcomes. 

“Licensing requirements … exclude potential service providers who find the hurdles too costly to overcome,” the Mercatus authors wrote

It’s not just North Carolina—other states have their fair share of onerous and idiosyncratic regulations. Three states and D.C., for example, require interior designers to “devote an average of almost 2,200 days—six years—to a combination of education and apprenticeship before they can begin work,” according to the Institute for Justice.

By limiting supply, licensing requirements can also dampen competition and allow “incumbent” providers to charge higher prices. That doesn’t mean occupational licensing never serves a genuine purpose, but it’s a policy area ripe for reform. The Institute for Justice has been involved in hundreds of cases arguing that onerous occupational licensing rules violate a right to economic liberty, and state legislatures across the country have recently taken a greater interest in the issue.

Those reform efforts haven’t yet helped Amar. The language barrier made it difficult to understand the exact circumstances surrounding his departure from Syria, though he told me and Marsh that he had once been part of Syria’s special forces. He married Salwah in Cairo, and their two young boys have never been to their parents’ home country.

Amar has received generous support from World Relief, a Christian agency that processed his family’s case in partnership with the U.S. government, as well as the local Good Neighbor Team that World Relief recruited and that Marsh helps lead. But Amar currently lacks the requisite language skills, time, and money to pursue barber school and licensure tests. Instead, he is working a construction job he got through a man connected to the Good Neighbor Team—a good start, but a poor long-term fit, especially given the chronic sciatica in one of his legs.

His experience is not unique. Refugees and immigrants often can’t access the professions they left behind, according to Sarah Ivory, the U.S. president of USAHello, an online resource center for refugees. “This is a true loss for both the individuals and the communities in which they live,” she said. “The U.S. has a higher demand than supply in several critical fields and unfortunately we have eager talent and skill matches that are unable to fill those positions.”

Barbers moving to North Carolina from other states can have some requirements waived if they’re already licensed and have practiced for at least three of the last five years (soon to be changed to one of the last five years), according to Seavers. But for immigrants, the Board of Barber Examiners “[doesn’t] have the authority to issue a license based on their training or licensure experience in the country they’re coming from, so they would need to approach it as would someone who was first attending barber school.”

License or no, Amar has honed his craft over years of practice, displaying thoroughness and attention to detail. As I sat in a wooden dining room chair, chatting with him and Marsh and watching his boys tumble around the room, Amar would step back periodically to examine his work, at first taking pictures with his phone to ask for my input and approval before Salwah eventually brought in a mirror. I could feel him shortening the strokes of his cheap Walmart clippers when he thought they yanked too hard on my hair.

Although he couldn’t fully express himself in English, his face and body language made it clear that being able to cut our hair brought him joy. Before I left, he told me once again why he loves barbering: “It’s beautiful.”

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