The eighties and nineties saw the explosion of unisex, discount salons and the gradual decline of barbershops. But today is a distinctly different story, with full-service–often retro—barbershops making a comeback, revering the time-honored tradition of the cut and shave and revitalizing the nearly lost art of barbering.
Recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reflect this trend. In 2012, the BLS reported that they expect a job growth rate of 11 percent in the barbering trade through the year 2022.
Who are Barbers and How Has the Profession Advanced?
A barber can be best described as a person who practices the art of men’s grooming.
According to the National Association of Barber Boards of America, barbering is one of the oldest professions, dating back to before the birth of Christ. In early European history, barbers were referred to as barber-surgeons, as they were skilled in barbering, herbs, tooth pulling, and even blood-letting. In fact, the act of blood-letting required a white cloth, which the barber-surgeons would rinse out and hang outside their shop upon the conclusion of the procedure. The blood-stained white cloth then eventually became the red and white, spinning barber poles we see today to let customers know the location of the shop.
Although the profession of barbering has come a long way since then, these professionals are still trusted to give a close shave and an expert cut to the men—and even women—they serve. Beyond the cut and shave, barbers are licensed to perform a number of duties, such as:
- Beard and mustache trimming
- Hairpiece fitting and maintenance
- Basic skin care
- Chemical straightening, curling, and coloring
Daily job duties also include:
- Cleaning and sterilizing scissors, combs, clippers, and other instruments and tools
- Cleaning the work station and sweeping up loose hair
- Ordering supplies
- Collecting payment from clients
- Scheduling and confirming appointments
Barbers vs. Hairdressers: What’s the Difference?
One of the most common questions for people outside the profession is: Isn’t a barber just another name for a hairdresser? The short answer to that is—no. These two beauty authorities, while both salon professionals, have distinctly different job duties and scope of work; therefore, all 50 states recognize the difference between the two careers and thus have different state licenses (and different licensing requirements) for both.
Both barbers and hairdressers receive training as to allow them to cut hair, although the process each profession uses to cut hair is quite different. In fact, the techniques, practices, and methods for cutting hair are what really set these professions apart. Hairstylists are typically trained to provide hairstyles of more complexity, while barbers tend to focus their craft primarily on men’s hair, focusing on traditional, short styles. Further, most hairstylists do not deal with facial hair, while this is an important aspect of a barber’s job.
In addition to all aspects of haircare, hairstylists are typically licensed to provide complimentary services such as manicuring/pedicuring, facials (esthetics), and waxing, while barbers are generally not licensed in these areas.
However, barbers are licensed to provide facial shaving services using both traditional straight razors and safety razors, whereas cosmetologists are generally not licensed to perform these services.
Therefore, while cosmetology educational programs may provide study in areas such as hair removal and esthetics, a barber educational program includes study in areas such as steam facials, facial massages, foam shaving, and modern razor styling.
Barbers and hairstylists are similar in that they both provide salon services; they both possess interpersonal skills that allow them to develop loyal clientele; and they are both state licensed to perform their services. In most states, barbers are allowed to work in salons and cosmetologists are allowed to work in barber shops, with some exceptions and exclusions.
How to Become a Barber: Barber Schools and Barber Licensing
In the past, barbers became barbers by first serving as a barber’s apprentice. And, although some states still recognize an apprenticeship as a route to barber licensure, most of the time licensure is achieved through a comprehensive educational program of barbering.
State boards of cosmetology or barbering, the divisions of state government generally responsible for the licensing of barbers, develop minimum standards and program and hour requirements that barber schools must meet to receive approval from the board; therefore, when shopping around for barber schools, you should first check with your state board of barbering or cosmetology regarding approved schools of barbering in your state. Many state boards maintain a list of approved schools, while others simply recognize programs that meet the state requirements. Because program structure and minimum hour requirements often vary from one state to the next, it is crucial that you determine the school of barbering that you choose meets your state standards for licensure.
For example, both California and Texas require barber programs to be at least 1,500 hours in duration, while an approved barbering program in Vermont is only 1,000 hours in duration.
A number of states have reciprocal agreements for barber licenses, including New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, all of which recognize licenses from each other. For example, if you work in Pennsylvania and want to move to New York to practice barbering, you will likely not be required to sit for the state barber examination to achieve state licensure.
A few states also recognize dual licensure for barbers, or a master barber license. The requirements to achieve a master barber license vary from state to state. Some states recognize barbers who have been practicing for a specific number of years as master barbers, while other states require barbers to complete additional education and/or take a test to qualify for this title. For example, Tennessee licenses both barber technicians and master barbers, with technicians completing a program of at least 340 hours and master barbers completing a program of at least 1,500 hours. Master barbers in Tennessee are permitted to perform a number of procedures, such as chemical treatments, that barber technicians are not.
After the completion of an approved program or apprenticeship, you will likely be required to take and pass a state examination, which generally includes a written portion and a practical portion. You can expect to receive a state license to begin practicing barbering after you have passed these examinations.
Barber Shop Jobs: Career Options for Barbers
The common career route for new barbers is working for a barber shop, as either an employee or an independent contractor, renting a chair in a popular barber shop. However, you may also work in a salon setting, where you may specialize in men’s cuts or shorter hairstyles and professional shave services.
Outside of a traditional barbershop or salon, you may also find a number of career opportunities in settings such as resorts, high-end hotels, cruise ships, and residential facilities, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Many barbers have also found excellent job opportunities working in prisons or on military posts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012, 74 percent of all barbers worked in a self-employed capacity.
Networking and remaining current on the latest trends in the barbering industry through professional association membership is common in this profession: