Elektra Walraven, a licensed cosmetologist who owns a salon in Lynchburg, styling hair for a client. (Photo by Beck Faircloth, courtesy of Elektra Walraven)
The General Laws Subcommittee room was filled to the brim and unusually colorful on an afternoon in March 2022.
Approximately 50 cosmetology students, some sporting bright neon hair, had traveled from across the state to oppose a bill from Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, that aimed to reduce the number of training hours required for a cosmetology license.
“You should have seen the room packed with people like it was the hottest issue,” said Jonathan Melloul, CEO of Sylvain Melloul International Hair Academy, a school based in Lynchburg that has been in operation since 1969 and has around 75 students in a given year.
The legislation was narrowly tabled later the same day in committee — the fifth time since 2019 that a proposal to reduce cosmetology training hours had failed before the House of Delegates or the Senate. The committee instead left the decision in the hands of regulators.
Now, under Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, those regulators are proposing to reduce the number of hours needed for a cosmetology license in Virginia from 1,500 to 1,000. The administration says the decrease will spur job growth in the cosmetology industry, which includes professions such as nail, lash and wax technicians, estheticians and hairstylists, and reduce financial burdens for students.
But numerous people in Virginia’s cosmetology industry question the motives behind the reduction and say it will lead to fewer people working in the industry, place excessive burdens on schools and students, and foster dangerous situations.
“It’s all about our students; it’s the value of education that they get. They are the ones who don’t want this,” Melloul said. “It was like they were ignored, like nobody listened to them and they’re the ones most affected.”
Less hours, less confidence, less cosmetologists
If students aren’t confident with what they’ve learned when they leave school, they’re less likely to go into the industry, said Linda Ingram, director at the Staunton School of Cosmetology, which has been in operation since 1956 and has between 30 and 40 students per year.
“We just feel like this is really going to be a detriment,” she said.
Karly Pierce, a student at Rudy & Kelly Academy, a Paul Mitchell partner school in Virginia Beach, has completed a little over 1,000 hours of training and said that if she graduated right now, “I think I would be set up for failure.”
Christine King, a graduate of Paul Mitchell The School Roanoke who now works at a salon and does house visits for clients, said when she and her classmates heard about Marsden’s bill to lower the hours, “like 90% of the people that I’ve seen freaked out about it,” she said.
“Some of us were over 1,000 hours and about to graduate,” King said, “and we ourselves were like, ‘If we have to leave at 1,000 hours we would probably drop out.’”
Joyce Worrall, director of Rudy & Kelly Academy in Virginia Beach, said the school’s admissions leader has recently been getting calls from people asking if they can enroll before the hours are reduced in order to receive the old curriculum based on a 1,500-hour requirement.
Mitch Melis, director of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which oversees licensing in Virginia for cosmetology and other industries, acknowledged some students entering the profession have concerns about the reduction and may not be as proficient as they’d like when they leave school. But he said the department’s goal is to ensure that cosmetologists are practicing safely and won’t injure anyone – and the agency believes the 1,000-hour standard will be sufficiently protective.
“While you’re not necessarily going to be the best hairstylist or cosmetologist the day you graduate, we feel a lot more confident we are protecting health, safety and welfare,” he said.
Not all cosmetologists believe the reduced training would negatively impact the industry. Debra Sawyer, a salon owner in Virginia, wrote in a comment on the proposal to reduce hours that “the extra hours are not needed and only lead to bigger student loans they will have to repay.”
“Over the last 16 years, I have hired numerous stylists who graduated from the beauty schools with the 1,500 hours and numerous stylists who graduated from our high school tech schools with only a required 840 hours of instruction,” she wrote. “I have found no difference between the level of preparedness to be on the floor servicing clients between the two programs.”
Burdens to students and schools
Other concerns voiced by cosmetologists and cosmetology students include financial aid, how transferable a 1,000-hour license would be to other states and whether students could receive adequate training in working with natural or textured hair in shortened programs.
Proponents of the reduction say a shorter curriculum would not impact financial aid and would actually lead to less student debt.
“It even reduces the amount of student loans a graduate will have to take on,” said Youngkin in a July 19 press release.
But Melloul said that if the curriculum is shortened, students’ financial aid eligibility will be drastically decreased because funding is based on the length of the program, but schools won’t necessarily be able to lower tuition just because the curriculum is shorter without jeopardizing their financial situation.
That can strain many schools. In Texas, which has a 1,000-hour licensure requirement, Audra Turner, executive education leader at Paul Mitchell The School Dallas, said teachers “are expected to deliver the same education in a third less time.” Reductions can also make it difficult for schools to retain their accreditations — the loss of which could mean the revocation of its certificate to operate and spell the end of the institution.
Being able to transfer cosmetology licenses to other states is also a huge priority for students, particularly those in or married to spouses in the military — a common situation in military-heavy Hampton Roads. If the license doesn’t meet the requirements set by another state, a cosmetologist might have to enroll in additional training to be able to practice.
According to a list of state requirements collected by Paul Mitchell Schools, new Virginia cosmetologists trained under a 1,000-hour curriculum could lose reciprocity in 17 states.
“You’re taking that portability away from students being able to transfer that license, and that’s huge to me,” Worrall said.
Reducing hours could also impact how well students learn to work with natural or textured hair, said some cosmetologists. Training is already limited in the current 1,500-hour curriculum, said King, who noted many clients with those types of hair are hesitant about stylists’ skill because of the neglect they’ve previously received at salons due to lack of knowledge.
“I feel like if you’re going to work in an industry such as cosmetology, you should be able to cater to all hair and skin types,” King said. “Not just one.”
‘You can really hurt people’
Because cosmetologists often have to handle strong chemicals, sharp tools and hot instruments that have the potential to seriously harm a client, many people in the industry say the reduction would increase the risk of injury.
Shears, scissors, razors and trimmers can cause lacerations, while irons, hair dryers and strong chemicals can cause burns to a client’s face or skin, said Elektra Walraven, a licensed cosmetologist and salon owner in Lynchburg.
“It’s a really bad and really dangerous idea,” Walraven said. “It’s one thing to pump out waitresses, and it’s another thing to pump out people who are putting life-altering chemicals on your face and head. You can really hurt people.”
Salons have insurance for a reason, she added.
But DPOR says the reduced hours won’t lead to safety reductions for the public. In an email, agency director Melis said DPOR brought in a national subject-matter expert on safety to share feedback on reducing the curriculum. Additionally, he stated, the Board for Barbers and Cosmetology, which voted to reduce the hours and is overseen by DPOR, is composed of experts who are familiar with the safety risks associated with the profession. That board created a 10-member regulatory advisory panel earlier this year to review the proposed curriculum with a focus on minimum competency.
DPOR and its boards are statutorily mandated to ensure licensees possess minimum competency, Melis emphasized, which means the “absolute bare minimum of knowledge, skills and abilities as to not harm the public.”
West Virginia University Professor Edward Timmons wrote in a comment in favor of the reduction that “there is no evidence of consumer harm resulting from” lowered cosmetology licensure hours.
“If Virginia reduces cosmetology licensing requirements from 1,500 to 1,000 hours,” he said, “it will be joining 15 other states that have made similar changes in the last 10 years.”
Large chains backing hours reduction
Despite cosmetologists’ concerns, Marsden said he introduced his bill this year because the cosmetology industry is experiencing a worker shortage, “especially the major hair cutting firms.”
From Nov. 1, 2019 to Nov. 1 of this year, the number of licensed cosmetologists in Virginia has decreased by 4.3%, according to data provided by DPOR.
Among the backers of Marsden’s bill this year was salon lobbying group Future of the Beauty Industry Coalition, which represents national companies such as Sport Clips, Great Clips and Hair Cuttery.
The push to reduce cosmetology hours isn’t new, Melis said. Year after year, he said, DPOR has heard from the industry, schools and students that the 1,500-hour requirement was “excessive.”
“The agency is finally being responsive to the variety of stakeholders who have been looking and asking for this,” Melis said.
The agency is finally being responsive to the variety of stakeholders who have been looking and asking for this.
– Mitch Melis, director of the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation
But neither Turner nor John Turnage, the owner of six Paul Mitchell Schools across three states, including the one in Roanoke, said they have heard any students complain about the length of the curriculum. Instead, they say large national companies are the main groups who want the requirement lowered.
“The companies that are pushing it are looking for low-paid labor,” Turnage said.
Pierce, of Rudy & Kelly Academy, also said the shorter curriculum will only serve to benefit the chain salons because small independent businesses aren’t going to want to hire graduates with 1,000 hours of training. Those businesses, say some cosmetologists, may not have the time to educate graduates who have received less training.
The Future of the Beauty Industry Coalition, which did not respond to a request for comment from the Virginia Mercury, has also successfully lobbied for reduced training hours in other states, including Texas, which it cited as an example before the subcommittee on why the reduction would be successful.
There has been no difference between 1,000- and 1,500-hour states in terms of the number of complaints, Matthew Benka, a lobbyist for the coalition and former vice chairman of the Virginia Board for Professional and Occupational Regulation, told the subcommittee in March.
Benka also assured the subcommittee that the reduction “does not change financial aid.”
Turnage, who also owns Paul Mitchell schools in Texas, said enrollment numbers have stayed the same despite that state’s reduction of licensure hours beginning in late 2019. However, Turner, of Paul Mitchell The School Dallas, said the school hasn’t been teaching a 1,000-hour curriculum long enough to know if students trained with it are able to earn a living long term.
After Marsden’s latest bill was tabled, the regulatory advisory panel spent months filling out surveys and reviewing the curriculum. In May, it presented the Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology with an average curriculum recommendation of 892.5 hours. The lowest recommendation was 32 hours.
Just over a month later, on July 11, the board voted to begin the regulatory process to lower the hours from 1,500 to 1,000.
While Melloul applauded the board for its creation of the panel, he said “the makeup of the panel members dictated the outcome.”
Three of the panel members worked for companies represented by the Future of the Beauty Industry Coalition.
“I think there are some people on there that literally said 80 hours is enough, that’s all the training you need for cosmetology,” Melloul said.
Turner, who also sat on the panel, called some of the curriculum hours recommendations “mind-boggling.” She recalled one panel member saying there didn’t need to be any hours for training on how to use curling, flat and other irons because it was a “no brainer,” and “it’s hot, you don’t touch them.” Another expressed the opinion that “giving cosmetologists more information would actually make them dangerous” when spotting potential abnormal moles, she said, “because she thought that we would try to diagnose and treat things, which we don’t.”
“There wasn’t really anyone that I know of asking the question of, ‘Hey, if this person said that there should only be 32 hours, should this person be considered an expert? And what’s their agenda?’” Turner said.
Melis said the panel members were “carefully considered and intentionally comprised of a broad spectrum of education providers and employer representatives.”
A ‘craft people take pride in’
Businesses having problems attracting or retaining employees need to change their own business model, Turnage said, and “not try to change the one that’s helping the education of the student.”
Marsden argued a lot of students think they will be making a fortune working in private salons but actually end up working at a chain salon for lower rates.
Ingram, Turnage, Melloul and Worrall, however, said most of their students end up working at independently owned salons after graduation.
Cosmetology is a “craft people take pride in, and they don’t want to just burn and churn people out of a salon,” Melloul said. Some chain salons “don’t really care about the haircut as (much as) they care if the client’s in and out in 15 minutes.”
Pierce said a reduced curriculum will diminish the quality of cosmetology in the state.
“It’s not going to be an artistic field anymore, it’s just going to turn into a machine,” she said. “It’s a skill and a trade, not a way to make money quick.”
The proposed curriculum will be considered at the Board for Barbers and Cosmetology’s Jan. 9 meeting next year.
This story has been corrected to note that the Staunton School of Cosmetology has between 30 and 40 students per year.
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