Diverse Skills Help Cosmetologists

Cosmetologists help people look and feel their best. They might work with an actress who needs to create a new look or a stay-at-home mom who needs a break from her busy family life.

Cosmetologists are also sometimes called estheticians. The career includes anyone performing manicures, cutting hair, styling, shampooing or applying make-up. It also covers many other services that involve skin, hair and nails.

It's a flexible field that allows for full-time and part-time work. There's also the option of self-employment.

But just because you gave your grandmother a great haircut doesn't necessarily mean you are ready to open a salon. You need a head for business. You also need creativity, a willingness to work hard at the beginning and great interpersonal skills. And often, you need a license.

Melissa Diacri is the admissions director at a cosmetology school in Connecticut. "The licensing varies from state to state," she says. "Check your state website and see what the required paperwork and testing credentials are."

Generally, training involves getting your high school diploma and attending cosmetology or vocational school or completing an apprenticeship.

Accredited cosmetology schools offer a broad range of training in various fields. "The benefit of hair, skin and nails makes you more marketable," says Diacri. "You can do any of the above with the license."

Each school has a different cost, focus and time requirement. It's worth considering which skills are in demand. "Esthetics, the skin care portion of cosmetology, covered under your license, is up and coming," says Diacri. "Medical esthetics is also growing."

"In the salon environment, the skills most in demand right now are the hair color skills. It's one of the hottest skills for students coming out of the school," says Margie Wagner. She is the director of education for the largest cosmetology school system in North America.

India Jensen works in admissions at a cosmetology school and spa in Seattle. "It is always good to keep up on all your skills, but it is possible to just specialize and demand high prices for being a master in one area," she says. "It takes time to learn every skill thoroughly."

Most cosmetology graduates end up working in salons or spas. But there are other options.

"Theatrical make-up or TV/video/photography," says Wagner. "If they specialize on the skin side, some of the students go into dermatology centers and work with plastic surgeons. They can also get into show work, hair shows or technical training centers."

Cosmetology has one of the highest rates of self-employed workers of any occupation. According to the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, about 40 percent of cosmetologists are their own bosses.

Renting a booth in a salon gives you the freedom and responsibility to arrange appointments and develop a clientele.

"I would recommend that new stylists always start working for a salon that will offer a great clientele and advertisement, which usually means commission," says Jensen. "And then once they have the experience and clientele to move on and lease a station or open a salon.

"But leasing or ownership is a lot of responsibility and takes motivation. They need to take care of their own taxes, health care and retirement. Good money can be made either way. It just depends on the stylist's personality and what responsibilities they want."

How much business training you get through cosmetology school varies by state.

"When the licensing requirements are higher, say 1,500 to 1,800 hours, you have more time to spend on the salon management side," says Wagner. "In states where the hour requirement is very low, it's hard just to get in the hair component."

If you're not comfortable with the business side of things, she recommends joining forces with someone who is.

Keeping up with the constant changes in trends and new products is a major challenge for cosmetologists. And in states that require you to renew your license, keeping your skills finely tuned is even more important.

"In many states, there is no requirement. You just pay your fee and get your license and it's up to the individual to keep their skills up to date," says Wagner. "But if they don't, their business will start dropping off."

"Nowadays, a lot of salons are offering advanced education and continual training," says Jensen. Another option is training through hair shows or with independent artists who teach advanced courses.

Starting salaries can be as low as minimum wage. But the sky is the limit for creative directors at the top salons and spas.

"The starting salary is about $30,000," says Diacri.

"To increase chances of making money in this industry, you would want to either apprentice or get some sort of advanced training," says Jensen.

"Work in a higher end salon in a larger town. Be ready to work a lot of hours in the first two years and be there for your clients.

"Referrals are the key to building your clientele, which in turn determines the price you can demand. Always give a great five-minute shampoo and treat your clients like they are the only one that you are seeing that day. Listening to clients really is the best way to keep them."


National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences
Accredits cosmetology schools in the U.S.

Find out how to become a licensed cosmetologist in your state

American Academy of Cosmetology
Offers a broad-based training program

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