Julia Taffet was tired of sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen all day. The 27-year-old, who had majored in communications at the University of Colorado, had a good job in software marketing, but she wasn’t happy. So she decided to dump her desk job, and her $40,000 salary, for hairbrushes, curlers, and scissors — and enroll in cosmetology school.
Taffet is among many cosmetology students — nearly half of her classmates at Arrojo — who leave behind four-year degrees and stable career paths to attend beauty school, hoping to find both satisfaction and financial stability in a fledgling economy. And despite the seeming risk, they might be making the right decision — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook expects a 20 percent increase in employment for cosmetologists through 2018, much higher than the average for all occupations. For these students, beauty school is not simply a chance to enter a recession-proof field. Most of them are also driven by an unfulfilled passion for the cosmetology craft.“I’m thrilled to get out of the office,” said Taffet, who will finish a seven-month program at Manhattan’s Arrojo Cosmetology in April. “I don’t mind standing on my feet all day, I can meet the most interesting people, and they leave happy. It’s always a treat.”
“The industry is recession resistant,” said Anthony Civitano, the executive director of the New York State Association of Beauty Schools. “But people don’t become hairdressers just to make money. They also have the creative desire.”
For many who switch to cosmetology, hair and beauty have always been an extracurricular passion. “In college I was cutting hair for my friends in exchange for drinks at the bar,” said Stephanie Bill, 25, a Monmouth University graduate with a degree in communications and journalism.
Bill did public relations for mass-produced beauty products before deciding to attend cosmetology school. “It was important for me to get my degree, especially with my family values,” she said. “But I finally got my chance to go to beauty school, and express myself and make people happy”
To switch professions, these students must financially invest in their future for a second time. Cosmetology schools can be expensive — tuition and fees are more than $16,000 at both Arrojo and the neighboring Aveda Institute — and the seven- to 12-month programs are necessary to become licensed. It’s also risky. While the average salary for cosmetologists in the New York area is more than $30,000, some make as little as $16,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, these students hope to eventually land jobs at high-end salons and make $60,000 or more.
These career changers also have reason to believe that their salaries will withstand economic downturns. Hairdressing cannot be outsourced, salons can adjust services and pricing based on customer needs, and, although customers may cut back, few will stop going at all. Americans seem to treat themselves to personal services even when strapped for cash — a phenomenon the chairman of Estée Lauder coined the “lipstick index” when lipstick sales increased 11 percent during the 2001 recession. “When people have disposable income, they spend money on themselves,” said Civitano. “But when they don’t have a job, it is just as important — or even more important — to keep up appearances while going on job interviews.”
Because hairstyling is an artistic outlet, most students hope that a successful career will offer them the personal satisfaction lacking in traditional entry-level jobs.
Blake’s Arrojo classmate, Andrew Karp, also hopes that the creative outlet of cosmetology will complement his own art in leatherwork and fashion. A museum studies major at Arizona State University, he moved to New York four years ago to work for a gallery — but then the economy crashed and his job disappeared. After working as a professional assistant, the 26-year-old realized he wouldn’t be happy until he found a career path that offered him a creative outlet as well as a decent income. Living in New York City isn’t cheap, after all.“I did the nannying gigs, the waitressing, and I wasn’t very happy,” said Caitlin Blake, a 2007 graduate of Kenyon College. She was trying to support her singing career, and enrolled in Arrojo when “a light bulb went on. I’ve always loved doing hair.”
“I realized in my field of museum studies I would have to pursue academia because there were not a lot of jobs,” he said. “Everyone else had more than their bachelor’s degrees; they had their master’s degrees.” For him, “academia” turned out to mean beauty school.
“In the demographic I was raised in, it’s hard to look at vocational opportunities outside of academia,” Karp added. “Everyone I’ve really been around gets their bachelor’s degrees, their master’s, a job — all leading to stability.”
But these students expect they will also find stability in cosmetology. Kristin Rizzi, a 2008 communications graduate from Northeastern University, first seriously considered cosmetology when she was laid off from a short stint in public relations. She became the personal assistant for renowned hairstylist Sally Hershberger — famous for her $800 haircuts — and was surprised to see her level of success. Now Rizzi manages a facial and waxing salon while attending the Hair Design Institute part time.
“I’ll have to take a major pay cut when I become a hair assistant,” she said. “But like anything new, you have to work your way up from the bottom.”
Bill also knows that her decision will mean a short-term change in lifestyle. She is moving back in with her mother and making some sacrifices until she finishes school and apprenticeships. But she’s thrilled to have found her passion at last, even if it is a little later in life.
“There is nothing more important than doing something you love,” she said. “After all, if you are doing something you love you never have to work a day in your life.”