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As a high school teacher I get a real kick out of asking kids what they might want to do for a living in a couple years and then helping them build some skills with that goal in mind (approaching education this way seems to have a much higher success rate than telling students they have to learn information because someone else thought it was important for them to learn it). Inevitably many of them are not sure, and while this is a good thing, I’ve noticed that the default option for many young women is to say “cosmetology.” Now there is nothing wrong with pursuing a career in cosmetology, I just think there is a smart way to go about building a career in that field, and then there is the path that most young women take. In my area, physical labour is the default option for men that don’t know what to do, and fortunately because of the farming and energy sectors, there are still very high wages available for anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work. I do sympathize with some of these young ladies who are probably just saying that they want to cut hair for a living because that seems to be more socially acceptable than simply stating, “I’m not sure what I want to do yet, but I’m keeping my options open.” Unfortunately, when you say this enough times, it seems many people convince themselves that this is their future, and consequently all motivation to reach their academic potential goes out the window.

Reality vs Perception

When you’re in high school the job of beautifying people all day long must look pretty good. I mean makeup and hairstyles are a huge part of your life, and becoming an expert in applying those techniques is probably very alluring. After all, we now tell kids to pursue their own interests no matter what the cost, because you have to love what you do every day (ignoring the fact that many of us don’t have a lot of interests other than hormones and establishing our own identity in high school). While pursuing interests is a great thing, we should probably realize that kids need time to mature and realize what they really have a passion for, before committing to that career path.

What these ladies don’t realize is the incredibly low rate of pay they will likely receive and how hard they will have to work for it. After putting my renowned Google research skills to use, I found that the average wage for a cosmetologist in the USA was about $12.00 and most cosmetologists in both Canada and the USA earn less than $30,000 per year. In order to get this wage, these people must work a job where they are on their feet all day, hunched over (apparently back and neck problems are common in the field), talking to many people you don’t really like, and digging around in hair that may not be very clean. I personally think that if this reality was made more apparent, few girls would be so quick to jump into the field.

Run Your Own Show Instead!

Now that is not to say that no one is making money in the field of cosmetology. If you are into the whole hairstyling thing (I’m not going to lie, I’m a pretty low maintenance guy) you no doubt know that the price for someone to work on your look for an hour is a whole lot more than $12.00 plus the cost of product. There is money to be made – just not by being an employee. Instead, my advice to people that want to get into the cosmetology field is to run your own hair salon, or cosmetology business. Take advantage of outsourcing the work, and instead focus your education on running your own business. Whether that means going the college route or the university route, it doesn’t really matter, the reality of that business model makes a lot more sense than working full time to make $30K a year.

The Road Less Travelled

By going to university and taking a Bachelors of Business Administration, or a similar college course, you will cover the basics of how to run a business including basic economic theory, marketing, HR, taxes, payroll, and making a business plan. Not only this, but in your classes you could focus on making a bevy of very important connections that will be a great help to you as you go forward. The friends and contacts you make while going through a business-related education will give you a great pool of human capital and resources to draw upon when you need help or recommendations for the various aspects of business life.

There are many indirect benefits to pursuing this goal relative to the far more common one of going to a cosmetology training school. Instead of devaluing the education all around you in high school with an attitude of, “I won’t need to know this in life,” I believe that students would be more willing to strive to learn new things, especially in math and business courses. If your business eventually fails for one reason or another, you are now left with some very marketable skills, and a ton of valuable experience. This is a much more enviable position to be in than fighting for a spot in a salon with dozens of others who are just as qualified as you are. The smart move is not to default into doing something you’re not sure about, it’s to put yourself in a position to take advantage of the fact that there so many people out there who are willing to let the default position become the path they choose.

The Wealthy Cosmetologist?

The Wealthy Barber didn’t get wealthy because he was a better barber, he got wealthy because he was a better businessman. I’m fairly certain that as a future entrepreneur looking to get into the cosmetology industry, you could pick up the vast majority of what you need to know on the fly by talking to experienced people in the field. An alternative arrangement might be to cut in a very experienced cosmetologist who has a long client list as part of your ownership team. In exchange for her expertise you would get to learn from the best, and promote the fact your product is top-notch. If all else failed, there are plenty of 6-month courses out there being advertised if you felt you really needed training in the art of cosmetology. Trust me, your business skills will be in much higher demand than their hairdressing background. The supply of trained cosmetologists far exceeds the demand. Don’t end up on the wrong side of that equation, take advantage of it instead!

Article comments


Excellent advice. It’s always good to focus on what sort of career you can find with the education you get. While it’s good to do something in a field that interests you, there are usually options as to how you can approach that field, allowing you to earn more or less money depending on just what degree you end up getting.

I have a business degree. 🙂 I got it because I loved organizing and running entrepreneurial enterprises in high school. But mostly I wanted a job with upward mobility and earning potential.

I think asking students what they want to do after high school is a loaded question. I think a better question would be “what kind of life do you want to live?” If working weekends and evenings for little pay is what they want to do (forever), then at least they’ll be prepared.

Teacher Man says:

Right, and that’s usually the sort of direction I take it Jordann. Sorry, I mean to make that a little more clear. To ask 15-17 year olds what specific job they want to have is crazy in this age of 10 jobs per person in a lifetime. Great suggestion! How has the business degree worked out and has it provided you with specific advantages if you don’t mind me asking?

My business degree has made me very employable, I think the involuntary unemployment rate for my graduating class was around 2%. I think this is because every company, non-profit or government, of every size, in every industry, needs people with business skills. I found my business degree gave me a wide variety of very applicable strategic organizational skills. I’m happy with my choice.

Teacher Man says:

That is pretty much what I thought you would say! A 2% unemployment rate is pretty fantastic. I shudder to think about what the rate is for my BA from the U of M…

damebochiew says:

hell yeah. do something else

AMEN! There is no reason to work for anyone else in a limited capacity. Learning to be your own boss and having skills that are transferrable are worth so much more.

Teacher Man says:

Transferable skills are the name of the game in this new economy that evolves so quickly. People in North American will likely always pay to get their hair done, but I would be willing to bet that there will always be an excess of people who want to style hair for a living as well!

young says:

Great post TM! It’s funny- in my high school days (that was a long time ago now) no one would say they were interested in cosmetology. Maybe the market has changed and many are setting their eyes on “lowered expectations”?

As a teacher, you must want to shake them when you hear they want to take cosmetology 😉

Teacher Man says:

As a teacher I am sometimes just happy they realize that they actually will have to earn money in a few years! I have nothing against cosmetology, and have a couple of extended family members in that line of work. I know that the top dogs actually make a good living, it’s just that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me from a long-term perspective. I always tell them that if they do cosmetology they had better look for a rich partner!

Vanessa says:

When I was in high school, my dream job was to be a chef/make-up artist. I decided instead to go to Cegep and university and now, I feel that I would be better prepared to be a chef if only because I would be bettr equipped to rise in that career. To me, the idea of choosing such a limited career choice without back-up options is foolish. Setting aside the low pay and back problems, many of these girls will work for what, maybe 5 years MAX before becoming bored with the monotony of the job. 40 years of applying make-up at The Bay? Not my idea of a career.

Teacher Man says:

I hear you Vanessa. I mean, some people say, “40 years of working with teenagers – not my idea of a career,” but I really feel that the cosmetology gets romanticized in the head of young women. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just stating that people should know exactly what sacrifices come with the choice they are making.

Such a great point. I imagine after you have the bachelor’s in business it wouldn’t be too unrealistic to go to cosmetology school if you really wanted to. Or you could become some type of cosmetic chemist and create the products themselves. Although I have no idea what that pays.

Side note: I heard a news story the other day that the barber’s association (at least in the US) is trying to pass a law saying that you have to be a licensed barber to use the barber pole. I guess it dates back to when barbers were like doctor’s and did bloodletting etc. But now they are trying to raise awareness between a licensed barber and some guy that works at Fantastic Sam’s. I must admit I still don’t know the difference.

Sorry. Totally random.

Teacher Man says:

A professional association of barbers huh? In my general experience the free market will usually take care of someone if they aren’t good. I mean, would you go back to a barber that gave you a bad haircut simply because they had the vaunted “barber pole” outside the door? On the flip side, would you not go back to someone that did a great job for a reasonable price simply because they weren’t part of some association? Usually associations like this are meant to artificially set price controls and keep others from entering the industry.

As a chemist myself, I can tell you that most entry-level, bachelor’s degree positions usually pay in the $40k to $50k range. I can’t speak for chemists in the cosmetics area specifically (honestly, I can’t even say off the top of my head whether it would be better to focus on organic or inorganic chemistry if you want to go into that field), but you’d definitely be in a position to make more money than if you become a cosmetician.

Teacher Man says:

Hmm… interesting. Go into the fundamentals of cosmetology so to speak. If you actually worked creating new products for a major company I’m sure the compensation would be pretty good indeed.