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Want more young people employed? States should stop barring them from working

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In the United States, we legally consider 18-year-olds to be adults. You can’t drink alcohol, but you can smoke, own property and enlist in the military. Decades ago, you could be conscripted for the armed services, and few would blink an eye over two 18-year-olds getting hitched. 

But state governments across the county often don’t see teenagers or even twentysomethings as capable of holding certain jobs. Today, about 25 percent of jobs require an occupational license and the vast majority of these have age requirements. While some of these rules may make sense, many clearly do not. 

The experience required to get a dog, have a baby, own a firearm and join the military  typically is much less than many states require to work in a host of different professions. According to information compiled by the Institute for Justice in their latest study, “License to Work,” these age requirements are widespread: 

  • In Tennessee, you can sign up for the police academy or become a firefighter as a teenager, but the Volunteer State requires a person to be 21 before they can work as an auctioneer. In Alabama, it’s 19. 
  • The country is having trouble finding referees, umpires, coaches and others willing to serve kids through sports. Most states have no age limit on working as a high school coach — Maryland requires you to be 23. 
  • If you’re interested in hiring a few high school kids to paint your old barn or shed, you’re out of luck in many places. Michigan and California require people to pass a series of exams before getting licensed, and those two states plus Nevada, Hawaii, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, Oregon, Rhode Island and North Dakota all have a minimum age of 18 to be a painter. 

People even younger than that are given other opportunities in this country. Sixteen-year-olds can drive cars and even obtain their student pilot certificate to fly small airplanes. But if those same teenagers wanted to cut or braid hair professionally, that’s often a no-go.  

Seventeen-year-old high schoolers around this country are shampooing their hair, manicuring their nails and putting on make-up regularly — but they can’t legally earn money doing so for someone else. You have to be 18 to shampoo in Kentucky, South Dakota, Montana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Vermont. Young people could legally pilot private flights on a hot air balloon at 16, but would have to wait two more years to earn any money as a manicurist in nine states. And girls across the country put on make-up every day — but cannot do so professionally in Nebraska until age 19. 

Now, in some professions, young people can work for someone else who is licensed in one of these professions. I painted, roofed and built decks in my early teens under such an arrangement. But if a person is entrepreneurial and can meet the other regulatory requirements, shouldn’t they have the opportunity to run their own small business? 

There’s often criticism of the millennial or “Z” generations as not being willing to work as hard or not appreciating what they have. That’s for another column. But at the very least, shouldn’t we agree that young people who want to work hard and get a good job should have the opportunity to at least try to do so? In many cases, this doesn’t require anything more than just the government getting out of their way.

Jarrett Skorup (@JarrettSkorup) is the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. His study on occupational licensing laws can be found at

Tags Employment Job Occupational Licensing teens young people

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