Dream Job: Hairstylist

Good Hair Day
Every morning, Ronnie Affsa and Bonnie Seifert wake up knowing they're going to make someone's day. Simply put, they get paid to make people look and feel beautiful. Working their magic with scissors and gel, these stylists - and many others like them - shape limp strands of hair into well-styled coifs. They sharpen their creativity through formal up-dos and inspired color treatments, making clients feel like the most important person on the planet. "When people leave my salon, the smiles on their faces are just great," said Seifert, proprietor of Hair Depot Salon in Charlton, Mass. A Snip Off the Old Block
"My father opened this establishment 51 years ago," said Affsa of his salon, Hairplace One in downtown Quincy, Mass. "I've been working here after school for as long as I can remember – it's the only business I've ever known."

Seifert also shares in the family spirit of the business. "I don't know what made me decide to become a hairdresser," she said. "I guess subconsciously it was because my mother was a hairdresser, but I never intended to become one."

Seifert got her start early on, and attended a vocational high school. "It was a two-year shop," she said. "Once you got your diploma, you could go for your license." Affsa went to a regular high school, but went to beauty school and apprenticed at his father's shop afterwards.

Different states have different rules governing hairdressers – some just require a one-time test to keep the license current, while others require constant renewals and health tests associated with working with the public. Massachusetts requires both a written and a hands-on examination. Would-be stylists have to demonstrate their aptitude with pin curls, roller sets, finger waves, and a number of other arbitrary hairstyles that are rarely used anymore.

Most states don't require any continuing education, but good stylists keep their skills sharp by learning new things and honing old skills. "You do want to keep up with the new styles," said Affsa.

The Balance Sheets Must Look as Fabulous as the Customers
As salon owners, both Affsa and Seifert bear the responsibility of running a business - Seifert on her own, Affsa with more than 20 stylists to manage. Seifert not only is the principal stylist, but also the receptionist and general manager, taking calls and filling orders every day. Being her own boss allows her time to spend time with her two small children, something she might not be able to do at a larger salon.

Affsa also balances business with creativity at his busy salon. Managing a staff that includes his wife takes up just as much time as his work on the floor of the salon. "I enjoy the business side of it more," he said. "But if you had caught me five years ago, I would have gone the other way."

Family Businesses Choose Salary Over Commissions
Stylists working in salons are usually paid on commission, meaning the more clients they have, the more money they make. But Affsa pays his stylists a salary. "It's the way my father always did it," he said. In addition to following a tradition, Affsa believes the guaranteed paycheck creates a team atmosphere and a clientele loyal to the salon, not just to an individual stylist. "Customers feel more comfortable because they can go to another stylist and not worry about hurting their regular stylist's pocketbook," he said. "And you don't get the pushy hairdresser who tries to sell you the extra color, the extra this, the extra that."

Not only does Affsa's compensation philosophy help the customer, but it also helps the stylist. "I have a lot of employees who have been here for 10 to 20 years," he said. "It says a lot about the salary system."

Sharpening One's Craft
After attending school and becoming licensed, an aspiring stylist can expect a few months or years of apprenticeship. The work – mostly cleaning up and assisting senior stylists - isn't glamorous, but allows apprentices to watch and learn.

Every individual has a different learning curve, Affsa said. Apprenticed and mentored under his father, he remembers "shaking in my boots" the first time he gave a haircut. "It took me two years before I did my first haircut, but that was because my father was extremely strict with me," he said. Most stylists can expect a training period of six months to a year.

It's a little tougher in sparsely populated areas. "For people in the suburbs or a rural area, the only way to be successful immediately is to take over someone else's clientele," said Seifert. "You have to build your own clientele, and that's easier in a bigger city than a small town." And referrals are the best advertising in this fickle business. "Usually I'll do the mother's hair, and then up doing the daughter's, the husband's, the mother-in-law's," she continued. "In a small area, that's how you get clients, through word-of-mouth."

They're Not Just Clients
In the business of creating and maintaining beauty, clients can be extremely loyal, trusting their hairstyle to one sole individual for many years. Many stylists still have clients from when they were starting out. Affsa remembers the first haircut he did on the floor of his father's salon - 20 years ago. That person has remained in his client roster to this day.

"I've done some families for years and years," said Seifert. "I've watched clients grow up. It becomes like one big family." In fact, Seifert doesn't even like to use the word clients. "They're my friends and family."

It's no wonder hairstylists count their clients as friends - when you're stuck under the dryer or getting your hair shampooed, there's always time to talk about things other than hair. "I see so many different people! The conversations are so different, everything is different with everyone I see," said Seifert. "I never get bored."

The Flip Side of a Dream Job
"This industry has a high burnout rate," said Affsa. "You have to be able to deal with criticism and not be too sensitive." Plus, stylists have to give up weekends, because "Saturday is the bread-and-butter day."

Nevertheless, almost every working day is busy in the beauty industry. "I usually don't get a break ," Seifert said. "Once I start, I don't stop until I'm finished, usually eight hours later."

Affsa concurs. "Lunch is when you have a minute to run downstairs to eat a sandwich," he said. "There's no lunch hour, because most clients come in during their lunch hour."

Affsa also deals with employee relations. "Interacting with 20 to 25 people every day can be difficult," he said. "We have a very casual and down-to-earth atmosphere, but there are bumps in the road, of course, with a lot of people working together in close proximity."

And don't forget the client who hates his or her new 'do. "I've had a lot of hairdressers who have great days, and then they have that one customer who doesn't like how their hair came out," said Affsa. "Many people take that home with them and it affects them." Developing a way to deal with criticism is only the beginning. "You can't make everyone happy all of the time, but you can try your best," Affsa said.

So, if you love to make people look and feel fabulous, and you're a natural with a blow dryer and scissors, grab a set of curlers and a great big bib. . . and dream on!