At a young age, I developed a strange circle of white hair atop my head, painted like a bullseye one inch in diameter. Fearful of the horrible insults my classmates might lob my way (9-year-olds can say some terrible things), I grabbed a pair of my mom’s crafting scissors and cut out the chunk of white, leaving what looked like a small dirt patch in an otherwise lush lawn of blond grass.
And thus ended my very brief foray into hairstyling. I clearly did not have what it takes to be a cosmetologist, but for those who do, the career can be lucrative and rewarding. The field of cosmetology covers a wide range of beauty professionals, including nail technicians, makeup specialists, and hairstylists and barbers. Some cosmetologists perform a wide range of services while others specialize in a specific area.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cosmetology career field is expanding rapidly: a projected 13% growth between 2016 and 2026, compared to the overall U.S. average of 7%.
While the average pay is typically $11.97 an hour (or about $25,000 a year), Chron.com estimates that cosmetologists typically add another 20% of their salary in tips. Further, the most elite, talented hairstylists can land jobs in high-end salons and make considerably more, around $50,000 pre-tips.
What Is the Day-to-Day Like for a Cosmetologist?
For this article, we’ll focus on the most common part of cosmetology — hair. To gain insight, I spoke with Jackie Newport, an artist at Main Street Hair Company in Fairborn, Ohio.
“The day-to-day as a hairdresser consists of having your appointments pre-booked and setting up for your day, making sure you have all the supplies you need, such as product,” Newport explained. “You also have to look the part. This is actually huge: If you don’t look put together, it’s hard to tell others what they should do and it’s hard for them have confidence that you know what you’re doing. You have to project an image that attracts your clientele.”
Newport continued, “In between clients through the day, I will usually schedule other appointments so I don’t have to do that on my days off. But while my clients are there, I give them my full attention.”
According to Nest.com, the typical tasks for a cosmetologist include hairstyling, cutting, coloring and additional hair treatments. Hairstylists must also perform administrative tasks and maintain health and safety standards, especially by cleaning tools and workspaces.
Rachel Korman, the co-owner of Mane Stay Hair Studio in St. Petersburg, Florida enjoys the variation in work every day. “It is very normal to skip lunch or eat one very quickly while standing… Coloring, braiding, adding extensions, cutting off a lot of length on someone… they are all a thrilling ride as long as you continue to challenge yourself and get out of a rut when you get stuck in one.”
What Are the Skills of a Successful Cosmetologist?
The most important skills of a successful cosmetologist are those they teach you in school: knowledge of hairstyles and the techniques to achieve them. Beyond that, you need a sharp eye for fashion, a steady hand, a creative outlook and a commitment to safety.
If you want to run your own shop, you certainly need business skills and a healthy amount of ambition. Even if you don’t personally own a shop, you must market yourself well to continually attract clients to your chair.
But the most crucial skill, perhaps even beyond the technical ones, is the ability to positively affect your client. “To be a successful hairdresser, you have to be a good listener,” Newport explained. “Yes, you need to master your craft and be the best you can be talent-wise, but most people want you to just listen to them. I’m not underplaying how talented people are in my industry, but I have seen people struggle more than anything when they don’t hear their people in their chair.”
Korman related some other soft skills needed for the job, “Other skills are multi-tasking, ultra clear communication, perseverance when something goes wrong (because it will, but how we fix it sets us apart), patience and the ability to have humble authority.”
The Challenges of Being a Cosmetologist
Cosmetology can be incredibly rewarding (more on that in a minute), but it also comes with its challenges. Scheduling can be difficult for those who envision working Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Because hairdressers need to be available when clients are, they often work evenings and weekends.
Difficult clients can also be challenging, especially when they’re unhappy with their hair through no fault of the stylist. As in most service jobs, cosmetologists must stay positive and professional with angry clients.
Physically, the job can be demanding. Hairstylists spend most of their days on their feet while using their hands, which can lead to back, foot, hand and leg pain. Chemicals from the shampoos and dyes can also irritate a stylist’s skin, especially one who has has allergies.
The largest challenge for Newport, however, is social media and the effect that it has on the industry. “It can be the best tool, or the worst,” she explained, “My clients sometimes see things online and believe they are educated on how the process should work. But with their circumstances and the condition their hair is in, most of the time this is not the case. In a way, we are sometimes set up for a fail, which can be very discouraging.”
The Rewards of Being a Cosmetologist
In spite of some of these challenges, Newport loves her job.
“My favorite part of being a hairdresser is the way we as artists have the opportunity to discover how people feel on the inside and make them look that way on the outside,” Newport said. “My clients trust me with one of the most important aspects of their image and how people see them when they first enter a room. For me, that’s an honor.”
Beyond transforming the client, cosmetology offers several other advantages, like flexible hours and a creative outlet. According to Chron.com, cosmetologists enjoy higher-than-average job satisfaction and have a number of career paths available to them. Opportunities abound in salons, spas and even resorts, and cosmetologists can open their own salons for more freedom and professional challenges.
How to Become a Cosmetologist
While cosmetology allows you to forego the expensive traditional college path, you will still have to obtain some formal education.
“After high school, I entered into cosmetology school, as a trade school,” Newport explained. “You have to pass a state board test, which qualifies you as a licensed professional.”
According to Learn.org, you can complete your education at a community college, vocational school or specialized cosmetology school. Typical programs last from 9 to 24 months and can be completed full- or part-time.
Education requirements vary by state, as does the testing for the license. Testing typically includes written and practical portions. In Newport’s state of Ohio, a cosmetologist needs 1,500 hours of education. Further, every two years Ohio cosmetologists have to renew their licenses, which includes eight hours of continuing education. “This keeps us up to date with all the trends and sanitation stipulations that change over the years,” she added.
After completing your education, you can look for a job immediately or earn experience as an apprentice, which makes you more marketable to employers and potentially helps you earn loyal clients before moving to your own chair, which is important if you work at a booth rental salon.
“My advice for anyone interested in becoming a hairdresser would be not to skip steps,” Newport said. “Yes, everyone is hungry after school, and you want to get out in the real world and make money and be behind a chair. But you should take the time to find someone in your area who you look up to — in terms of business and passion — because it will pay off in the long run. This way, you have someone to look up to and to guide you. Don’t be afraid to assist and take in knowledge from those who have been in the industry longer than you. Always be an open book ready to learn because our industry is always changing.”
Interested in learning about your state’s cosmetology requirements? Visit beautyschools.org for more details.
Timothy Moore has blond hair kept just short enough that he can roll out of bed and go about his day without having to touch it. He lives in Ohio with his partner and their two dogs, whose hair is also short enough that they can roll out of bed and go about their days without having to touch it.