Practical Advice for Landing Your First Gig Out of Beauty School

Read Time: 15 Minutes
Expertise Area: All Career Fields
Career Stage: Beauty School Students and Recently Licensed

You did it, beauty school graduate! You put in the time, studied hard, and racked up tons of hours in the student salon. Now, as you study for your state board exam, you’re probably dreaming of what comes next, like landing your first job and making a name for yourself.

Where to begin?

Transitioning from beauty school student to beauty school professional can often feel like a daunting task. Don't worry. We got you! Below, you'll find effective tips and strategies for landing your first gig along with smart advice from people who've been there, done that.

Have Realistic Expectations About Your Earning Potential

You know all those awesome influencers you follow on Instagram? All those incredible beauty pros who have a gazillion followers and are living your dream? Most of them were just like you once: fresh out of school and eager to get started. In other words, their success didn't happen overnight.

This can often be the hardest pill for beauty school graduates to swallow. But having realistic expectations as you embark on your new career is probably one of the best things you can do for yourself.

We're certainly NOT suggesting that you stop dreaming BIG. You should always have dreams and goals. But at the same time, you need to be realistic about the job you can do today. (If only because you need to pay the rent, right?)

And speaking of money, that's a good place to start when it comes to setting expectations. You need to understand what sort of salary you'll be able to command fresh out of school in the region where you live. ZipRecruiter has a good list of average cosmetologist salaries by state. It's broken down into hourly rates and annual salary.

Another place to look: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS says that overall job opportunities in the cosmetology industry remain good, but it also adds that "workers should expect strong competition for jobs and clients at higher paying salons, of which there are relatively few and for which applicants must compete with a large pool of experienced hairstylists and cosmetologists."

Keep in mind that the above resources are focusing on base salaries. Often, you'll have the opportunity to earn more, thanks to tips, retail sales (i.e. selling the products the salon uses), and other incentives/bonuses.

Kim Berube, Milady's marketing manager, recalls how she used to approach salaries when she hired employees for her salon. "I used to pay a per-hour wage," Berube says, "depending on their level, and they could attain different levels. At an entry level, you got your hourly wage, and if you hit certain retail benchmarks, then you would earn a bonus. After you got over that certain bonus level, you would start earning every bottle you sold."

Bottom line: Understand the average base salary in your area, but when you interview, be sure to ask about incentives and bonuses (we'll be discussing this more below). Most salons do offer some type of commission or revenue share on retail products sold. Always make sure you're comparing apples to apples when considering different job offers.

Ask Yourself What You Want

Do you want to be part of a national chain, like Great Clips, Sport Clips, or Supercuts? Do you want to work for a salon with multiple locations in one state? Or are you looking to work in a solo salon and get your start that way?

This goes back to advice we provided in an article for people contemplating beauty school—knowing your "why."

You've likely modified your "why" over the course of beauty school. You might have changed it altogether, and that's OK. Return to your current "why." Ask yourself what you want now and where you ultimately want to be in, say, three, five, or even ten years. Look for jobs in environments that can be stepping stones to your why. Remember, when it comes to your why, there's no right or wrong answer—only what's right for you.

Generally speaking, larger chains, like Supercuts, might offer paid training, more robust benefits packages, built-in foot traffic, and a more straightforward/linear path for growing into management positions. You also might be expected to work faster.

A franchise recruitment lead for Supercuts notes, "You'll become a pro at quick, convenient haircuts with an attention to detail that makes your guests feel ready to go. Working at Supercuts also means a steady base of guests, competitive wage and benefits, and a company that believes in you and your dreams."

A smaller salon, on the other hand, might offer a more intimate vibe as well as greater freedom/self-management regarding creativity and how long you spend with each guest. But you'll have to do more networking and marketing as you build your own book of business.

Again, go back to your why. And know that it’s OK to change your mind! You might start with a national chain and decide it’s not for you (or vice versa). Learning what you don’t want to do is just as valuable as discovering what you love.

Know Where to Look

Larger chains—like JCPenney, Great Clips, and Sport Clips—will likely have their own job boards. Even smaller salons often have a careers section on their websites with info about open positions.

You can also find online job platforms catering strictly to people looking for gigs in the beauty industry. These platforms include the following:

Don't overlook sites like Indeed.com, which lets you search on keywords like "hair stylist," and Glassdoor.com, which can provide deeper insights into a salon's culture (thanks to reviews from current and past employees).

Do Your Homework

Once you've found openings you're interested in, do your homework: Look at the salon's website and social media platforms. See how the salon presents itself.

You should also pay attention to what clients have to say about the salon. How? Read reviews (Yelp, Google, social media comments) to get an unfiltered feel for what the salon's environment is like based on real clients' reactions.

Consider ALL the reviews—the good, the bad, and the ugly. No business is immune to the occasional one- or two-star review, but a business that racks up an unusually high number of bad reviews could indicate a deeper problem with how the salon is run, which is something to keep in mind, especially if you score an interview or receive a job offer.

Polish Your Resume and Prepare for the Interview

Remember, all beauty school pros had to start somewhere. Most people have to pound the pavement looking for a job. As you approach prospective employers, present yourself in a way that demonstrates the attributes businesses are looking for in beauty professionals.

1. Highlight relevant education and experience on your resume.

As a recent graduate, no one is expecting your resume to be long. Highlight the program you attended and the fact you have your license.

Jill Mion from Temptd Salon & Spa in Monona, Wisconsin, recommends noting "extras" that demonstrate your commitment to learning. "I love seeing all the extra classes stylists take," she says. "That shows me they are in the mindset of always learning and growing."

If you've had any prior experience working in the beauty industry—as a salon receptionist, for example—highlight this experience as well. This sort of experience can provide a hiring edge since it will indicate that you're familiar with the inner workings of a salon and business side of things. Note: Some national chains, like Supercuts, hire receptionists or stylist-in-training roles while a student is completing school and obtaining their license.

What stands out to you on an applicant's resume?

"Uniqueness. Individuality. Make us remember you! Make us want to call you immediately! Film a video instead of writing in the answers. Send a card to the salon. Be specific with your responses so we know you've done your homework on us and you know exactly why you want to apply. Be bold and tell us exactly what value you will bring to our space and also show some humility and vulnerability with what you are eager to work on because you've struggled with it in the past. We see expressing ‘weaknesses’ as a strong sign of strength, ESPECIALLY when you don't know how the other party will take it. That is VERY cool to us."

~ Heather Yurko, Owner of Neatbeat Salon and Dean of PIP University ~

2. Include a link to an online portfolio like Instagram or Pinterest.

When it comes to Instagram or Pinterest, consider creating separate accounts: a private, personal account and a public-facing account. Include the public-facing accounts on your resume and/or include links in online applications.

Why should you differentiate between personal and professional Instagram and Pinterest accounts? Well, if you mix personal with the professional, you'll end up blurring the lines, which could prove problematic. For example, hiring managers aren't interested in your last beach vacation or what you're eating and drinking at your favorite restaurant. But they are interested in seeing your work, particularly in the form of before and after photos, so make sure your public social media accounts have plenty of them.

Another reason to have public-facing accounts is because prospective clients often research beauty professionals—they want to see what sorts of results you can deliver. So maintaining professional social media platforms is not only smart for landing a job, but also for growing your clientele.

Here are more great tips for creating a strong resume and online portfolio.

3. Dress to impress.

This should go without saying, but we've heard stories about job candidates showing up in casual or inappropriate attire. Yes, the cosmetology industry has a different vibe than, say, Wall Street. But it's still a professional industry, and you're still interviewing for a job. Dress accordingly.

Milady's Kim Berube says that beauty professionals have fought hard to be taken seriously. She says you don't necessarily need to wear a suit, but you should be mindful about how you present yourself to your future employer. She says visiting the salon and seeing how the employees dress is a good place to start.

Heather Yurko, owner of Neatbeat Salon in Louisville, Kentucky, and dean of PIP University, offers this sage advice to job seekers: "No sunglasses on your head. No drink from the gas station you're slurping on. Dress like this is the opportunity of a lifetime. If this was your one shot at the top salon in the world, how would you dress and act? We want that."

4. Ask smart questions.

Earlier, we mentioned different salons will have different approaches to salaries. You might have a base hourly wage with opportunities to earn more through retail sales and other incentives. Ask about these things during your interview.

If you're worried that asking about money seems aggressive or inappropriate, let those feelings go. Remember, this is a business. Business people discuss money. Jill Mion from Temptd Spa & Salon says, "I love when new stylists ask me about growth opportunities, pay plans, benefits. That tells me that this person is serious, motivated and is career focused. Not here to just play with hair."

Heather Yurko echoes this sentiment: "Come with the real questions you have. And you DO have questions. We want you to ask the hard ones. If you're stuck with this, ask your teachers or your parents or someone you admire on a professional level. The better the questions, the more you stand out and more authenticity is felt."

Check out this Milady Pro article with tips and strategies for discussing money, including negotiating commissions, asking for a raise, managing tips, and filing taxes.

5. Acknowledge what you don't know, but show your eagerness to learn.

The most successful beauty professionals are committed to lifelong learning. After all, styles and trends change. New products and innovations are constantly in the works. It's your job to stay up to speed. And you will absolutely impress employers if you talk about your interest in expanding your knowledge base.

Heather Yurko says, "The absolute number one skill we want is for you to crave learning, crave trying new things, and be open to allow failure to become comfortable. We've been able to see incredible success because of these three things, and if someone isn't interested in this way of work, we aren't the right fit.”

Remember, no one expects you to know everything fresh out of beauty school. It's OK to admit you don't know something as long as you indicate you're eager and willing to learn.

6. Expect to demonstrate your skills.

Don't be surprised if you're asked to do a haircut, also known as a "technical interview." It makes sense, right? The person interviewing you not only wants to get a feel for who you are as a person, but also how you will conduct yourself in a business setting.

Milady marketing manager Kim Berube recalls the days when she interviewed job candidates. During the interview, she assessed whether the person would be a good fit for the salon. If Berube thought yes, she invited the candidate to come back with a "client" and perform a haircut. (The client could be anyone the candidate wanted, like a friend or family member.)

Berube says she was looking to see how well the job candidates eased into the role of beauty professional. Could they do a good consultation, did they make the client comfortable, could they carry on a conversation, did they attempt to "upsell" the client with a retail sale?

"When you're hiring somebody right out of school," Berube says, "they've been on the clinic floor, but they haven't really been held to standards of 'this is how much retail you need to sell.’ Or ‘this is the type of consultation you need to do before you ever put a comb or scissors to someone’s head.' So you want to see: do they at least have the baseline skills? Regarding the ability to upsell, the candidate might just say, 'This is what I used on you today,' and that could be the end of it, but that's okay because at least they did that, and you know that you can build on that."

Click here for more great tips on acing your interview.

How should candidates prepare for their job interview?

"I highly recommend that new stylists do their research. They are also interviewing their future boss. I love when new stylists ask me about growth opportunities, pay plans, benefits. That tells me that this person is serious, motivated and is career focused. Not here to just play with hair."

~ Jill Mion, Temptd Salon & Spa ~

Got the Gig? Congrats! Get Ready for Onboarding!

Landing a job is only the beginning. Remember what we said earlier about having realistic expectations? This extends to your first days, weeks, and months on the job. The onboarding process will vary, but almost all salons—big and small—will have a process. This might include a training period and/or a certain amount of time you shadow a veteran employee.

It's no surprise that Heather Yurko, dean of PIP University, has a rigorous onboarding plan for new hires at her salon, Neatbeat. After all, her university describes itself as the "grad school for salon owners and hair stylists."

"From the day they're hired," Yurko explains, "we start a standard operating procedure (SOP) that has specific dates of when they're sent various resources to ensure they arrive for their first day of work with everything from tax forms being completed to tools they need with them and how those tools need to be labeled. This SOP also includes a card that's mailed to their home congratulating them on their career with us."

Jill Mion from Temptd Salon & Spa explains her salon's approach. "When new stylists join our team, we have them partner up with higher level stylists to learn different ways of developing their skills. As they pass each phase, the newer stylist will gain opportunity days to take on their own salon guests at a discounted rate. Once they finalize all training, they move on to taking all appointments and salon guests."

Larger chains have training and onboarding baked into its process as well. A franchise recruitment lead for Supercuts says new employees receive "ongoing paid education, starting with Supercuts' exclusive Hair Stylist Academy Training."

And the learning doesn't stop with onboarding and training.

Mion from Temptd says, "Every quarter, we bring in advanced training on different aspects in the cosmetology industry to our salon. It is also mandatory to visit a hair show once a year. We pay half of the cost for all outside education."

Yurko says, "We have a pretty rigorous Academy that takes anywhere from 3-6 months to complete. Outside of that, we do something called Monthly Team Investing. This is two hours every month that's taught from another team member (we adopted this method from Google). Or we have an expert come in and teach. Leadership doesn't pick what's taught. The team does!"

Here are great do's and don'ts for a beauty professional's first days on the job.

Remember, You've Got This!

Landing your first real gig out of beauty school is something you'll probably never forget. You've got the desire. You've got the skills. YOU'VE GOT THIS. Go get 'em!

And, of course, if you need further help or support, be sure to check out Milady's continuing education and Expert Career Advice center.

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