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Hair has been a center of attention since people first began to care about their appearance. Throughout history, a great deal of effort has gone into acquiring a fashionable hairstyle or a perfectly trimmed beard. Although styles change from year to year, the cosmetologist's task remains the same--to help people look attractive.

Cosmetologists, also called beauty operators, hairstylists, or beauticians, shampoo, cut and style hair, and advise patrons on how to care for their hair. Frequently they straighten or permanent wave a patron's hair to keep the style in shape. Cosmetologists may also lighten or darken the color of the hair. Cosmetologists may give manicures and scalp and facial treatments; provide makeup analysis for women; and clean and style wigs and hairpieces. Related workers include makeup artists, who apply makeup to performers; electrologists, who remove hair from skin by electrolysis; and estheticians, who cleanse and beautify the skin.

Most cosmetologists make appointments and keep records of hair color and permanent wave formulas used by their regular patrons. They also keep their work area clean and sanitize their hairdressing implements. Those who operate their own salons also have managerial duties which include hiring and supervising workers, keeping records, and ordering supplies.

Cosmetologists generally work in clean, pleasant surroundings, with good lighting and comfortable temperatures. Their work can be arduous and physically demanding because they must be on their feet for hours at a time and work with their hands at shoulder level. Many full-time cosmetologists work more than 40 hours a week, including evenings and weekends, when beauty salons are busiest.

The overwhelming majority of cosmetologists are hairstylists; other specialists including manicurists and shampooers. Most work in beauty salons, barber shops, or department stores, and a few are employed by hospitals and hotels. About one-half of all cosmetologists operate their businesses.

About two-fifths of all cosmetologists work part-time. The abundance of part-time jobs attracts many persons who want to combine a job with family, school, or other responsibilities.

All cities and towns have beauty salons, but employment is concentrated in the most populous cities and States. Those cosmetologists who set fashion trends with their hairstyles usually work in New York City, Los Angeles, and other centers of fashion and the performing arts.

Although all states require cosmetologists to be licensed, the qualifications necessary to obtain a license vary. Generally, a person must have graduated from a state-licensed cosmetology school, pass a physical examination, and be at least 16 years old. In addition, education requirements vary from state to state--some require graduation from high school while others have no requirement at all. In a few States, completion of an apprentice training program can substitute for graduation from a cosmetology school, but very few cosmetologists learn their skills in this way.

Cosmetology instruction is offered in both public and private vocational schools, in either daytime or evening classes. A daytime course usually takes 6 months to 1 year to complete; an evening course takes longer. Many public school programs include the academic subjects needed for a high school diploma and last 2 to 3 years. An apprenticeship program usually lasts 1 to 2 years.

Both public and private programs include classroom study, demonstrations, and practical work. Most schools provide students with the necessary hairdressing implements, such as manicure implements, combs, scissors, razors, and hair rollers, and include their cost in the tuition fee. Sometimes students must purchase their own. A good set of
implements costs between $85 and $130. Beginning students work on mannequins or on each other. Once they have gained some experience, students practice on patrons in school "clinics." Most schools now require unisex hairstyling as part of their regular curriculums.

After graduating from a cosmetology program, students take the state licensing examination. The examination consists of a written test and a practical test in which applicants demonstrate their ability to perform the required services. In some states, an oral examination is included, and the applicant is asked to explain the procedures he or she is following while taking the practical test. In some states, a separate examination is given for persons who want only a manicurist's license or a skin care license. Some states have reciprocity agreements that allow a cosmetologist licensed in one state to work in another without reexamination.

For many people, cosmetology serves as an entry point to the world of work. The field is also characterized by a pattern of movement from family responsibilities into the labor force--when employment and earnings opportunities are attractive enough--and back to the home again. In fact, most entrants to this occupation come from outside the labor force; relatively few transfer from other occupations.

Persons who want to become cosmetologists must have a finger dexterity and a sense of form and artistry. They should enjoy dealing with the public and be willing and able to follow patrons' instructions. Because hairstyles are constantly changing, cosmetologists must keep abreast of the latest fashions and beauty techniques. Business skills are important for those who plan to operate their own salons.

Many schools help their students find jobs. During their first months on the job, new cosmetologists are given relatively simple tasks, such as giving manicures or shampoos, or are assigned to perform the simpler hairstyling patterns. Once they have demonstrated their skills, they are gradually permitted to perform the more complicated tasks such as hair coloring and permanent waving.

Advancement usually is in the form of higher earnings as cosmetologists gain experience and build a steady clientele, but many manage large salons or open their own after several years of experience. Some teach in cosmetology schools or use their knowledge and skill to demonstrate cosmetics in department stores. Others become sales representatives for cosmetics firms, or open businesses as beauty or fashion consultants. Some cosmetologists work as examiners for state cosmetology boards.

Job Outlook

Job openings for cosmetologists are expected to be plentiful through the mid-1990's. Most openings will result from the need to replace the large number of workers who leave the occupation each year--primarily to devote full time to household responsibilities. Employment of cosmetologists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the mid-1990's in response to population growth, particularly among middle-aged persons, who are the primary users of cosmetology services, and the rising number of working women. Hairstyling for men also contributes to the demand for cosmetologists because many men go to unisex shops or beauty salons for styling services. Opportunities for part-time work will continue to be very good.

Most people regard spending on grooming care as discretionary. During hard economic times, they tend to visit cosmetologists less frequently, which reduces cosmetologists' earnings. Rarely, however, are cosmetologists laid off solely because of economic downturns.

Cosmetologists receive income from commissions or wages, and from tips. Those who are not salon owners receive a percentage of the money they take in, about 50 percent; a few are paid straight salaries.

Earnings also depend on the size and location of the salon, patrons' tipping habits, competition form other beauty salons, and the individual cosmetologist's ability to attract and hold regular patrons.

Large salons and department stores offer group life and health insurance and other benefit plans. Nearly all employers provide annual paid vacations of at least 1 week after a year's service.

The principal union which organizes cosmetologists--both employees and salon owners--is the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The principal trade association which represents and organizes salon owners, managers, and employees is the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, Inc. Other organizations include the Associated Master Barbers and Beauticians of America; the National Association of Cosmetology Schools, Inc., which represents school owners and teachers; and the National Beauty Culturists' League, representing black cosmetologists, teachers, managers and salon owners.

Other workers whose main activity consists of helping patrons improve their personal appearance include barbers, makeup artists, and health club managers.