The recession is forcing Americans to get crafty with their careers and think outside the bureaucratic box. But although the U.S. is supposed to be a country for self-starters, strict rules originally created to protect licensed professionals are making it extremely difficult for amateurs to get into business.

Jestina Clayton is the perfect example of an enterprising lady who can't catch a break thanks to some rather high-and-mighty licensed professionals who want everyone to play by the rules, even though current rules really only benefit those who are already licensed. When Clayton moved to Utah from Sierra Leone at age 22, she started a small African hair-braiding business to pay the bills. But it's illegal in the state of Utah to work with any form of hair extensions without a valid cosmetology license, which she found out thanks to a super-helpful stranger who emailed her and told her to delete her ad or she would be reported.

Clayton would have had to spend two years of school and $16,000 in tuition to get her license, and for what? Few Utah schools teach anything about African-style hair-braiding anyway. But try telling that to the Barber, Cosmetology/Barber, Esthetics, Electrology and Nail Technology Licensing Board, which she did. The board sounds like a made-up entity in a Monty Python skit, but its power is all too real: the group, which consists of mostly licensed barbers and cosmetologists, told Clayton her rogue hair-braiding days were over.

Professional licensing obviously has some benefits for everyone; you wouldn't want your airplane pilot to dabble in aviation or your physician to experiment with scalpels without seeing some credentials first. But licensing reeeallly has benefits for those who already have jobs that require licenses — a group that now represents 30 percent of Americans, up from only 5 percent in 1950 — which is why they show up in droves to lobby for licensing rules that grandfather in professionals and scare away new competitors like Clayton, who ended up joining forces with a Utah state representative who had adopted African kids and introduced a bill that would take hair-braiding out of the cosmetology licensing law. But Clayton had problems even with a politician and a bunch of cute kids on her side: cosmetologists started a heavy grass-roots campaign in response, saying that if everyone else is regulated, Clayton should have to be, too.

And that's the problem — since licensing is great for the licensed, trying to fight them can be "political suicide," Morris Kleiner, a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers who is trying to help states get rid of stringent licensing rules, told the New York Times. "When you talk about reductions in licensing, you have every occupation from the plumbers to the C.P.A.'s to the electricians lining up to argue why regulation should not be reduced," he said. And they're experts, so its easy for them to come up with rules that benefit themselves instead of the millions who are unemployed and just want to do a little less-than-lucrative hair-braiding in peace. That's why Jacob Goldstein argues that we need to make it easier for workers to transition from dying careers into promising ones:

Workers need to be able to experiment and to fail (quickly and often) until they find the real, valuable skills that customers will pay for. This will take years. And in order for them to do that, we need to start by making it easier to braid hair in Utah.

It's nice to know that politicians and other groups are on the case: in addition to the Council of Economic Advisers, Michelle Obama is trying to make it easier for military spouses to switch careers as they move from state to state, and The Institute for Justice has filed lawsuits in multiple states claiming that licensing rules are "arbitrarily interfering with citizens' ability to earn an honest living." The Institute represents Clayton, so hopefully she'll be able to continue buying groceries with the small salary she brings in from braiding hair in the not-too distant-future.

So You Think You Can Be a Hair Braider? [NYT]