When I first moved to Baltimore, I worked as a receptionist at this quick service, no-frills salon. It was a pretty stupid job, but I loved it.
I became an e-commerce specialist, and when that company died, I became a barista. Then I got hired to work out of a lady’s garage, selling solar panels, which I was awful at and hated. I moved on to an administrative job at a green tech company. And then one day, I found out you could do an apprenticeship to become a stylist. I hadn’t realized this before—I thought it was hair school or nothing. And for me, that meant nothing. I’d already sheepishly wasted a bachelor’s degree, so I didn’t like the idea of shelling out additional thousands for a cosmetology degree.
But an apprenticeship, that was different. The only job I ever liked was working in a hair salon, which meant I had to become a hair stylist. Sometimes the life you end up with is not the life you imagine it will be.
I put in generous notice at my job. The next to last day of that job, I got hired as an apprentice in a hair salon, which happened because I knew somebody. The person I knew tried to talk me out of applying. Apprenticing involves long hours on one’s feet, bent over a shampoo bowl, trying not to run water down clients’ backs or into their ears. It’s a hair-sweeping, towel-folding, dish-washing, foil-tearing kind of job. Apprentices’ hands crack and bleed in the winter. Apprentices’ feet and joints ache. Apprentices are often about 18 or 20 years old, and I was 29 when I started. Do you want to know what teenage co-workers hate? Adult wisdom. When I’m shampooing, ladies of a certain age ask how old I am, what I did before this job, and why I made a change. Some I tell them something truth-adjacent. Surprise! They always think I am a teenager. It is not because I look youthful. I just dress in cheap clothes and do a young woman’s job.
Right now, I work for a small hourly wage three days of the week. It’s below minimum wage, but higher than waiter’s pay. I also receive tips. The other two days of the week, I work as an independent contractor earning a percentage of the services I sell. By this time next year, I hope to have my cosmetology license and be able to take my own clients full time.
I’ll be making an exciting, mystery amount of money. It’s a feast or famine trade, and most stylists that I know deal with it by working furiously when circumstances will allow, and by suffering to one degree or another when things are tight and the clients aren’t anywhere to be found. Hair stylists are notorious for taking poor care of themselves: not eating, not taking breaks, skipping out on family obligations. It is a trade that demands both one’s physical presence in a set location, and a certain amount of health and bodily integrity. I knew that when I decided to go into this industry, but as I’m getting into the second half of my apprenticeship, those truths are scarier than they were when I first started.
Last year was lean for me. When I worked in an office, I did a lot of side gigs for extra cash—pet sitting, focus groups, and medical studies. I also secretly worked pre- dawn or evening shifts at a cafe. But after a few months at the salon apprenticeship, I quit the cafe. I felt like I was going around in a fog all the time. I was fighting with my husband, and I couldn’t absorb information the way I needed to in order to get anything out of my stylist training. The relief that came from dropping my 4:00 a.m. Monday food prep shift (and scattered barista hours) was so necessary that it didn’t feel like relief, just like being awake.
Giving myself more hours in the day to learn and more to rest helped tremendously. My training doesn’t take the white-knuckled effort that it used to. The hair isn’t cutting itself yet, but holding shears in my hand doesn’t make me feel icy shame that I’ve made a horrible career mistake anymore.
I will build up a book of regular clients. I will sell more services. If these are the bad times, I’m set for life. If these are the good times, I may be in trouble.
Cara Dudzic cuts hair and rides a bike.