Cosmetology students hit the books — to pass the California Board Exam, aspiring cosmetologists must complete 1,600 hours of in-class training, in addition to outside coursework. Photo by Kathryn Power.
Cosmetology students hit the books — to pass the California Board Exam, aspiring cosmetologists must complete 1,600 hours of in-class training, in addition to outside coursework. Photo by Kathryn Power.

Walking into a cosmetology school can be startling.

A hundred plastic heads stare down anyone stepping onto the floor, their hair colored, curled and teased to within an inch of their synthetic lives.

Patrons who frequent professional hair salons are unaccustomed to the blank eyes of this audience, but these heads were every stylist’s first customers.

Vocational facilities such as Santa Cruz’s Shoreline School of Cosmetology are providing specific training with immediate results in the job market, no general education required.

“To me, I feel like a university degree shows that you can do homework,” said Emily Hall, former cosmetology student and Santa Cruz local. “A vocational degree is translated to real skills. Like, I know a girl who graduated with a literature degree, and she works at a Starbucks now.”

Cosmetology is a profession in which art pays. According to the school’s manager Natalia Bonilla, graduates fresh from practicing on their plastic heads make around $30,000 a year at their first position, and can make upwards of $70,000 after becoming an established artist.

Higher salaries depend on skills, salon types, and client tips. And while most students must start out at lower end salons, the school makes sure every graduate who needs a job is hired.

“All our students are placed,” Bonilla said. “We also have a board of stylists that comes in and tells us what they’re looking for, and that helps the instructors teach exactly what is necessary [to get a job].”

An eight-hour session for five days a week, cosmetology education is an intensive process with the ultimate goal of employment. Based off the current flagging economy, Bonilla stated that learning a trade may have more immediate practicality than a university diploma.

“Right now the market is full of professionals with a four-year degree,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been there. I’ve been out with my degree, definitely feeling a little jaded … A lot of people are coming to a vocational school after they graduate.”

It’s cheaper to learn a craft than to attend a California university. The $10,595 a year price tag doesn’t hold up well against the $3,500 it costs for a full-time, ten-month stint at Shoreline.

However, the decision to become a stylist is rarely based on comparing prices, and is more often a case of students wanting to learn the trade.

Graduate Erin Beccaria is currently working as a receptionist at Shoreline, and will soon go on to employment as a stylist.

She elaborated on her reasons for the choice while helping walk-in clients, the air heavy with the scents of hairspray and shampoo.

“I knew that I wanted it,” Beccaria said. “I wanted to go to cosmetology school right after high school, but my mom made me go to college. In the end, I dropped out and went to cosmetology school anyway.”

Like Emily Hall and Erin Beccaria, local stylist Sarah Heslep is living her dream, courtesy of hands-on artistic training that was affordable and attainable. Color mixing was a crowning achievement for all three, and Heslep recalled a friend who came to her for something new.

“I got her to this beautiful golden blonde color, which was really hard because she has darker hair. It’s my baby,” Heslep said. “You have to know what the base color is, whether it has green or yellow tints, because no one wants to have green hair at the end of it.”

Hall shared a story of reds: a mixture of copper, auburn, and deep mahogany lowlights that equaled her favorite color experience. For Beccaria, it was a woman who said her new color was exactly the one she had when she was sixteen.

The career path that vocational schools provide is more direct than the meandering university route, but students are just as unsure about their future.

Heslep attended Shoreline and is now employed at a Scotts Valley salon, Ideal Hair. However, she stated that not everyone graduates, and not everyone chooses to pursue jobs in salons.

Vocational schools are designed to provide vocations, but the training recieved in “beauty school” can only be what students make of it.

“We learn how to do these things,” Hall stated. “I’ve rolled hundreds of curlers, done a hundred sets of long layers, short layers, and when I graduate I could get a job semi-easily.”

It goes without saying that all of the students on Shoreline’s salon floor had great hair.