Did You Know You Can Cut Hair Without Going to Beauty School? I Didn’t, But I Do Now

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.


9 Comments / Post A Comment

Cup of T (#2,533)

Thanks for writing this- the world of the salon is still a little mystifying to me. Do you have any advice on tipping the apprentice? When I go to a salon where one person washes my hair and another person cuts it [which is rare, cause I ain’t fancy], I never know how to go about making sure they both get a tip and often end up over-tipping the stylist in the hopes that there is some kind of tip out system for the washer [like at a restaurant, where servers tip out bussers, bar backs etc.] Am I kidding myself that the shampooer sees any of this money? I am probably kidding myself. Ugh. Now I feel especially guilty knowing that the shampooer might be working for less than minimum wage :(
Please know that your scalp massages make me feel like I’m floating on a cloud!

BananaPeel (#1,555)

@Cup of T You might like this vlog from Kate at The Small Things blog. She’s a hairstylist and has good tips: http://www.thesmallthingsblog.com/2013/03/salon-etiquette-faq-video.html

Cup of T (#2,533)

@BananaPeel Thank you! I’ll check it out

frenz.lo (#455)

@Cup of T Hey, I wrote this thing! Thanks for reading. The best way to make sure that the person shampooing you gets a tip is to keep a couple of bucks in your pocket, and hand them to the shampooer as soon as you finish. Or, you can run back and find them after all your services are done. Or, when you pay at the desk, you can tell the receptionist, “This is for my stylist, and this is for the person who washed my hair.” At my specific salon, we don’t have a formal tip out system. Sometimes, if a stylist gets a really incredible tip from a client, they’ll pass some along, or if I do something extra, like start a client’s blowout for a stylist, or apply a glaze or other treatment at the back bar, the stylist will send a few bucks my way.
Other salons may be different, but pretty much any decent place, if you ask the desk who things work and what usual ballpark tip amounts might be, they’re not going to be like, “People usually tip $1,000.”
For me, when I’m shampooing, people often tip $2, salon lifers often tip about $5, and baller clients tip $10 or more. One regular client routinely tips me with a handful of nickels.

Catface (#1,106)

I enjoyed the hell out of this and I like your writing, Cara. I also started pursuing my current line of work after I temped in a mysteriously vivifying receptionist-type position in the same industry. Now it is many years and a graduate program later — I never would have pictured myself here as a younger person, and it is pretty great.

You may already have heard it, but in case not, I recommend this EconTalk interview with the owner of a salon. She goes into a lot of detail about the business and her approach to management, and you can tell she loves her work: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/12/abdallah_on_hai.html (the one where he interviews the sales manager at a car dealership is really interesting, too). Anyway, all success to you in the work you want to do.

sintaxis (#2,363)

This was nice! Good luck getting the license and booking some regular clients!

I was hounded and threatened by the “barber police” (aka Bureau of Occupational Licenses) when I was in college for exchanging haircuts for beer without a license. I continued to do it anyway; no regrets!

breakfast (#633)

Haircutting is sometimes my ‘Plan B’, and it is disheartening to learn that it involves as much hustle to pay the bills as my ‘Plan A’. Now I need a new daydream job. Also, I live in Baltimore and go to a salon where apprentices wash hair. I wonder if it is the same one?

MrFreshcuts (#4,070)

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I liked your article about salon apprenticeship. I wrote a book on how to start and maintain a cosmetology apprenticeship in a salon in order to get your cosmetology, esthetician or nail technician license. It is filled with all the necessary information for anyone to get their license utilizing apprenticeship. I have been licensing stylists, estheticians and nail technicians in my salon for 12 years. http://www.cosmetologyapprenticeship.com

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