I spent several years of my career at a salon where I was not learning the speciality I always knew I was most interested in. I had a great time, met great people, and honed my cutting skills in a super fast, efficient manner, but looking back- I feel as though I wasted that time. If I could impart anything to a new generation of hairstylists, it's that our bodies do not last in this career forever, and to not waste the time you have.
Like many other stylists in the industry, I never had an in person "mentor". My parents are very far removed from the beauty industry, the cosmetology school I attended did not have many opportunities to excel past our doors, and I never worked at any fancy salons with apprentice programs. A lot of the industry is filled with talented people who are sometimes third or even fourth generation hairstylists, or people who have been scooped up in a mentorship with celebrity hairstylists, and it can feel very off putting when you don't have those resources. BUT NEVER FEAR! I will help you with my magical superpower (that we all have): hindsight.
Here is, step by step, exactly what I would do if I could go back in time to the day I graduated hair school:
Schedule your state board test for as soon as humanly possible.
If you live in a state where you do not have to be licensed to be a shampoo tech, call all the larger salons in the city you live in and offer your services as a shampoo tech or receptionist. You definitely want to be making connections in the salon industry even before you've taken your state board test. HEAR ME OUT before rolling your eyes- I know you didn't go to hair school to be a receptionist, but if you ever want to be an independent stylist, you will have to be your own receptionist, so you better get some practice in! You can skip this step if you can't find anywhere, don’t trip. Not a ton of salons even have a position like this, but if you find one, take it as a blessing. Instead, try applying at your local beauty supply stores (Cosmoprof, Armstrong McCall, Salon Centric, etc), that way you can gain product knowledge and keep up to date on education and get product discounts while waiting on your test/license.
The moment you get your hands on that license, you've got two options, and they both depend on how much you like the salon you got a shampoo tech gig at. If you liked the salon, you'll want to ask to go down to part time for outside training, and that you plan on coming back full time as a stylist in 12-24 weeks if they have a spot for you. If you don’t like the salon, give your two weeks notice and gracefully bow out. Now that you've gotten that handled, you're going to apply at every fast paced cut salon in the city (Greatclips, Sportscuts, Supercuts, etc). This may not sound appealing, but this will get you comfortable and fast at cutting (on people who typically aren't too picky). If you're working full time, you only need to work there for 6 weeks. If you're working there part time, I'd stay for 12 to get plenty of experience. In my opinion as someone who worked at Greatclips for over 2 years, you really learn all you can learn in 6 weeks. I recommend this for EVERYONE. That's right, even people who aren't interested in cutting long term. Why? Barbering is a recession proof skill and coloring is not. Even if you hate cutting, it is a good skill to have, should the economy crash.
Once that 6 or 12 week period passes, I would give your two weeks notice. (Be nice though, don't burn bridges, you never know when you might have to walk across them again!) Some salons might need you staffing-wise the full rest of the two weeks, but most salons are afraid that you'll try to gain customer information and will take you off the schedule as early as they can. Don't bother trying to take customers from these places with you when you leave. Why? Those customers are looking to pay $16 for a haircut, and the second you raise your prices to something reasonable, they'll go straight back to Greatclips. Take my word, I worked there for two years and only had ONE client follow me out of thousands.
Now that you've washed your hands of fast paced cutting, it's time to apply at a blow dry bar! Working at a blow dry bar will benefit you in a few ways- they educate you on styling, and you will build speed. No matter what kind of specialty you pick, blow drying is involved in anything you do. Figuring out how to do a fast, polished blow dry will help you immensely. In this industry, especially with people starting to charge hourly more frequently, TIME IS MONEY. Blow drying is also rough on the body. Eventually, your body will feel the difference between 20 minutes of blow drying and 45 minutes of blow drying. It's better to learn the perfect fast blow dry at the beginning stages of your career to save yourself time and hurt farther down the road. This is another gig that you'll only want to do for 6 weeks full time, or 12 weeks part time. Any more than that, and you're wasting time (unless you've decided you want styling to be your specialty.)
You guessed it- give your two weeks notice at the dry bar!
This step also has two choices. If you liked your original salon that you did shampoos at, it's time to go full time! If you didn't, it's time to find the fanciest color salons in your city and apply to be an apprentice. This might not be your cup of tea, but remember- it doesn't have to be forever. I never worked at (or was even a customer at) a luxury salon, and I feel like it's a massive gap in my industry education. Though I have plenty of technical skills, I feel like I missed learning how to provide luxury customer service amenities. The higher quality the experience, the more you can charge. Even if you don’t like it, you can definitely learn a thing or two to take with you on your journey. Don't be surprised to find that some of the apprentice programs are 2 year long programs. Don't sign any contracts that have non-competes or time requirements.
During all of this time, you'll want to be taking photos of your work, posting them to social media, and taking classes online to help you learn more technical skills and grow. If any of the places you work at are slow, always bring a mannequin and practice things that don’t alter the mannequin, like braiding or styling.
GOOD LUCK, and don't be afraid to customize this plan to fit your wants and needs!