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Career Talk: Cosmetology Instructor Laura Castle

Laura Castle has been a hair stylist since 1982. Not surprisingly, she has climbed up the cosmetology ladder, so to speak. From her early days as a beginning hairstylist, when she had to work a second job to make ends meet, she has reached her current position as manager of a cosmetology school.

Needless to say, at 55, Laura has a lifetime of knowledge to share with the instructors and beginning hairstylists at the Brighton Institute of Cosmetology in Brighton, Mich. She oversees instruction for hairstylists, nail technicians, and estheticians.

Step One: Being Broke While Building Clientele

After first obtaining her cosmetology license, Laura worked from home for her first 12 years in the business. These years were all about building a clientele, which can take some time. That’s why Laura ended up working with little kids while serving adults—because she ran a daycare business along with her cosmetology work out of her home to earn at least a basic living.

Take note of this, beginning hairstylists: “It takes about two years to get yourself established,” Laura says. “So if you’re responsible for all of your bills, you can almost count on having to work a second job until you establish your clientele.”

However, Laura notes, it’s better now for beginners than it was back in 1982. At that time, the only options were working on commission or by chair rental in an existing salon, which meant very little income. “My first paycheck was $25,” Laura recalls. “That was for two weeks’ work.”

Today, the major salon chains such as Fantastic Sam’s offer hourly work, so it’s much easier to make decent money while also meeting potential clients. After that period, the sky’s the limit in cosmetology, Laura says.

“You can make upwards of $150,000 in this industry in the right area, at the right salon.”

After that first 12 years, Laura worked in a salon for 17 years. It wasn’t $150,000, but it was a lot better than $12.50 per week.

The Urge To Teach At Cosmetology School

As much as she loved being a hairstylist, Laura wanted to teach the trade she had learned so well. “I always knew that in my future, I would be an instructor,” she says. “There’s an old saying in the industry: ‘Old hair stylists don’t retire, they teach’—as they should,” she adds. “Otherwise the industry dies.”

Not on her watch. Today, Laura, who has been teaching for the past five years, oversees seven instructors who work with about 50 students at any given time. The Institute has full time programs in cosmetology, manicuring, esthetician, and cosmetology instruction.

The cosmetology program is one year full time or 18 months part time; the other programs range from three-and-a-half months to six-and-a-half months, depending on whether you attend full time or part-time.

Learning to be a cosmetology instructor entailed more than Laura expected when she learned this part of the trade. There was a course with a textbook, a review guide, a cosmetology book. “The course has nothing to do with hair,” she says. “It has to do with teaching: classroom layout, styles of learning, styles of teaching, how to approach difficult students, conflict resolution.”

After that is the practical part, she adds, as she walks around a salon full of young stylists practicing haircuts on wigs. You check students’ work with haircuts, color, highlights, and perms, stepping in to correct if needed. A total of 500 hours is required to obtain a cosmetology instructor’s certificate.

If there is a downside to being an instructor, it’s that you make less money than does a successful hair stylist. But that’s okay, Laura says. There are other rewards.

“I get a lot of satisfaction when it ‘clicks’ with students. It’s also a lot easier on my body. Stylists are on their feet 10 to 12 hours a day, not moving.” Meanwhile, she adds, “we have a shortage of teachers in this industry because it’s hard to walk away from the chair..”

Back Off, Robots

The good news is that in the era of artificial intelligence, when more and more jobs are succumbing to robots, cosmetology “is one skill that will be hard for computers or robots to take over.” No one wants to gossip with a machine while they’re getting their hair or nails done, right?

Now, that’s what you call job security.

Thinking about becoming a cosmetologist? Find a school near you.