Cosmetologist Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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A cosmetologist's median annual salary is around $23,000. Is it worth the licensing requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a cosmetologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Cosmetologist

If you're interested in hair, makeup and beauty trends, you may want to consider a career as a cosmetologist.

Pros of a Cosmetology Career
Work can involve a variety of activities (styling hairpieces, selling skincare products, performing facial treatments, giving makeup advice, etc)*
Self-employed cosmetologists set their own schedules*
Work in a clean, comfortable setting*
2-year degree or less required for licensing*

Cons of a Cosmetology Career
Relatively low pay (median hourly wage of $11 in 2014)*
Many self-employed and part-time workers do not receive benefits*
The job can be physically demanding (long shifts spent on feet, continuous exposure to chemicals)*
May work long hours (evenings and weekends are usually busiest)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Cosmetologists can work in salons, day spas or nursing homes, cutting, styling and coloring hair or providing wig and hairpiece services. Your work could also involve giving scalp and facial treatments, selling skincare products and providing makeup analyses. Because you'll work so closely with clients, you must maintain high standards for cleanliness and hygiene. Your work requires that you keep up with the latest beauty trends and project a professional image. Good communication skills are essential for providing clients with the best possible service.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that nearly half of all cosmetologists were self-employed in 2012. These workers may own their own salon or rent a space at an established salon for a fee. Self-employed cosmetologists may set their own hours and fees, but they're responsible for purchasing their own supplies, paying self-employment taxes and attracting clientele. According to the BLS, although many cosmetologists work part-time, those who are self-employed may work long hours. The job often involves working evenings and weekends.

Salary and Job Growth Information

The median annual salary for cosmetologists was relatively low at $23,120 in May 2014, but the top ten percent made $45,000 or more, according to the BLS. Employment of hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists was expected to grow 13% from 2012-2022, which was about as fast as average. This is likely due to the increase in demand for the latest hair care and beauty techniques. Competition is expected for positions at high-end salons, and experienced cosmetologists should have the best chances of obtaining one of these well-paid positions.

What Are the Requirements?

All cosmetologists are required to complete a state-approved training program and hold a license to operate. Training programs typically last at least nine months and can lead to a certificate or an associate's degree. These programs can be found at high schools, community colleges and vocational schools. Many cosmetology certificate and degree programs are designed to meet state-specific requirements for cosmetology education and clinical hours. While enrolled in your program, you may learn how to provide services such as hair lightening, shampooing, manicuring, facials, hair removal and hair styling. You may also learn how to manage a salon and safely handle chemicals. After completing school, you must take and pass your state cosmetology exam. This exam consists of a written portion and may include an oral or practical portion as well.

Job Postings from Real Employers

The main requirement for most cosmetology jobs is a license, but some positions may require varying levels of experience. Many job postings for cosmetologists specify the atmosphere or image of the salon, giving applicants an idea of what it's like to work there. Here are a few examples of real job postings found on and in March 2012:

  • A nursing home in Ohio looked for a licensed cosmetologist with experience in ethnic hair styling and the ability to perform all cosmetology services.
  • A California salon advertised for a licensed, experienced cosmetologist. The ideal candidate should have the ability to speak Spanish and should be willing to work on Sundays.
  • A Florida department store looked for a licensed cosmetologist to promote products and provide excellent experiences for clients. The ideal candidate should be dedicated to continuing education and should project a positive, modern image.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

You can consider joining a professional organization, such as the National Cosmetology Association (NCA), to stand out in the field. The NCA provides members with access to benefits, such as continuing education, industry events, discounts and networking opportunities. Joining this organization requires that you pay a yearly membership fee. You could also advance your career by seeking out new clientele and promoting yourself to gain a reputation as a go-to stylist. Cosmetologists can attend continuing education classes provided by schools, product manufacturers or their employers to learn the newest trends and techniques in the field to stay marketable.

Other Careers to Consider

Skincare Specialist

If you want to work in the cosmetology field but are more interested in skincare than in cutting and styling hair, consider becoming a skincare specialist. Also known as an esthetician, a skincare specialist provides beauty treatments, such as facials, waxes and anti-aging treatments, to clients. Skincare specialists must complete state-approved cosmetology programs and obtain licensure just as cosmetologists do. According to BLS data from May 2011, the median salary for skincare specialists was $29,000. As a skincare specialist, you're likely to enjoy better employment prospects than you would if you were a cosmetologist. The BLS predicted that employment of skincare specialists would grow 25% over the 2010-2020 decade, which was faster than average. However, the downside to this career is that long hours are common even if you're not self-employed.

Nail Technician

If your interest in the cosmetology field is nails, you could consider a career as a nail technician, otherwise known as a manicurist. This field was expected to grow 17% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. Nail technicians provide manicures and pedicures in salons and spas. Like other careers in the cosmetology field, nail technicians must complete a state-approved cosmetology program and obtain a license. If you become a manicurist, you may earn significantly less than you would if you were a cosmetologist. According to the BLS, manicurists and pedicurists earned a median salary of $19,000 in May 2011.

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