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Cosmetology reforms show importance of boards, industry says

By Malcolm Maclachlan | 05/28/09 12:00 AM PST

On May 1, people wanting to qualify to work as barbers and cosmetologist in California began taking a series of nationally standardized tests. The new exam replaced an old California-only test they say was more appropriate to an era of beehive hairdos.

The change came after years of effort by industry groups. It also may never have happened if the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology didn’t exist, or had been a mere bureau under the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), according to Fred Jones, lobbyist and legal counsel for the Professional Beauty Federation of California (PBFC).

The board is not one of those identified by the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration’s May Revise budget proposal as a candidate for being phased out or consolidated. However, it has switched back and forth from board to bureau status in the past, Jones said. Needed reforms, he added, were not taking place, when it was a bureau under the DCA—something he said was the fault of the structure, not the Department’s management.

“One of the primary reasons we helped support the bill to bring back the board is it forces a public debate about every major policy and regulatory decision,” Jones said. “Under a civil servant bureau, they never had to have any public meetings. There was no accountability to the public or the industry.”

That bill passed in 2003. But this was just the beginning of another battle. Then governor Gray Davis appointed a pair of “industry gadflys” who continued to block reforms, Jones said. Board chair Della Condon and vice-chair Joe Gonzalez were longtime industry figures who saw no reasons to make changes, he said.

After two years of constant fighting at board meetings, Jones said, industry groups were finally able to swing enough board members against the pair to depose them in 2005. The exam reforms, he added, still took another four years to go through the deliberative and administrative process. Gonzalez did not return an email seeking comment. Efforts to reach Condon through a recent employer, San Joaquin Delta College, were unsuccessful.

The most needed reform Jones identified was instituting a nationally-recognized set of exams administered by the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC). Thirty-five other states have standardized on their exams. First created in 1969, they are regularly updated to reflect the latest trends and technology in the industry, according to the group’s president, LaFaye Austin. She said California has long been a hold-out.

“The NIC has approached the state of California about adopting the NIC National Testing Program for over 15 years without success,” Austin said.

Under the old system, Jones said, students often had to wait nine months after finishing school to test their skills and get on the job market. Cosmetology and barbering schools, he added, generally take about 10 months to complete if a student is attending fulltime.

Much of what these students were learning, he added, would never come up in their jobs.  Among the “1960s” technology they were working with were hair rollers, perms, finger waves and outdated hair coloring techniques. 

Methods for disinfecting equipment were badly out of whack with industry standards, he said, and the skin care exam hadn’t been updated for 23 years.

“Before, you’d have the beauty schools teaching two curricula,” he said. “One was to teach the outdated exams, and the other was to teach the techniques they would need in a modern salon. We thought that was a waste of resources.”

The NIC is not a private trade group, but an organization whose members are other state boards of cosmetology.  As such, Austin said, it is sensitive to the needs of industry while still putting consumers first. Less than a third of her group’s members are represented by bureaus rather than boards.

While the board is not currently on the “chopping block,” Jones said, there is always a worry that it could be if budget problems continue. All state boards, he notes, are subject to review. 

“But for having that board structure, Lord knows what mess we’d be in.”, Jones said.

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