Too narrow and too broad: the problem with NAICS

In a world where Google can search a string of words faster than you can type them, I don’t quite understand why we still assign numerical codes to businesses. But we do. And if you want to certify your business, one of the things you’ll have to do is wade through the swampland that is the NAICS coding system.

How swampy is it? Not only is the coding system impenetrable, the very name of the organization is too. It’s clearly an acronym, but I defy you to figure out what it stands for beyond National Association. Heck, NAICS may not know either—I couldn’t find it on their website, not even on the “About Us” page!

But the website does offer to help you navigate its database of codes. You can search by industry—but if you work with different industries, as I do, you’re probably better off going with a keyword search. Nothing under “speeches” or “speechwriting,” so I went broader. The keyword “writer” gave me six different codes for things involving typewriters—is the typewriter business really booming enough to need six different classifications?—two codes for insurance underwriters’ laboratories (fire insurance underwriters get their very own number), and one code for “Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers.”

Scroll down past “Animated cartoon artists, independent” and “Ethnic dancers, independent”; and you’ll find “ghost writers, independent.” Keep scrolling past record producers, scene designers, and “wildlife artists”—I’m assuming people who paint animals, rather than animals who create art—and you’ll find “Writers, independent (freelance).” All under the same code.

So the next time a potential client searches for an ethnic dancer or someone to paint their pet tiger, they may find me instead. Really? I’d like to think there’s a lot more call for speechwriters than there is for tiger-painters. But to the tiger-painters I may seem an equally exotic breed.

With more independent professionals joining the workforce—and far fewer factories turning out typewriter ribbon—perhaps it’s time for the NAICS to re-examine its classification system.