Barbering school offers an alternative to traditional education

Jun 19, 2019

For many people in Western New York, a traditional path through higher education is not for them. Fortunately, there plenty of programs out there to get them into a career.

Barbering School student Alex DiRado
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

“I’ve never been one to be able to study and do book work, things like that,” said Alex DiRado. “I didn’t get bad grades in high school but I’ve always wanted to do something different than that route, so this was definitely a good alternative.”

DiRado, 19, of Cheektowaga, graduated last month from The Buffalo School of Barbering. The school is a part of the Buffalo Public School’s Adult Education Division.

The nationally accredited school holds a weekly open house for perspective students looking for a career as a hair stylist or a barber. Students who apply must be at least 17 years old with a high school or equivalency diploma, or at least 21 and working towards an equivalency diploma.

Students come from all walks of life.

“We get a wide variety of people that are coming in from different backgrounds. Some people that are just changing professions,” said lead instructor Thomas J. Nichols. “Some people that have had difficulties in life.”

Thomas J. Nichols
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Nichols is affectionately referred to as “Mr. Nick.” He has been the lead instructor since the school’s inception in 2013. Students learn how to cut hair and they learn about the “profession of barbering.”

“We teach the basics of the barbering profession,” he said. “Not only just cutting hair, but they are fully capable of taking care of any client that might walk in the door.”

They also learn how to market themselves to perspective barbershops once they graduate.

But first they need to put in the work. That means 560 hours of instruction and 40 hours of unpaid internships at local barbershops.

Barbering students in class.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Mondays are reserved for book work and in-class instruction. Tuesdays through Thursdays they work on anyone who might drop in. Sometimes it’s school children. Sometimes it's people from homeless shelters. Sometimes it’s just people looking for a free trim.

The cost of attending the barbering program is $650 per month, for seven months.

Adult Education Career Supervisor Ellen Malone says while the school is considered a college under federal standards, they are still awaiting application approval for student financial aid.

“We offer tuition on a sliding scale based on income,” Malone said. “We wanted to make sure that while we didn’t have federal financial aid, students would still be able to afford our program.”

Career Advisor Ellen Malone
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Students pay as they go and get their GED while going to class or have their tuition paid by an adult career service.

The latest figures from New York’s Department of State Licensing Division show the number of licensed barbers has increased from 379 to nearly 500 in Erie County over the past five years. The number of barber shops jumped from 211 last year to its current 238.

More barber shops means more available chairs to rent out for people like Thomas, a former construction worker from Niagara Falls. He admits he wasn’t the best student in high school, and went through the BOCES program, which led him to construction. The money was good, but Thomas disliked the backbreaking labor. He came to the open house looking for a fresh start.

“I like to cut hair. I’ve been cutting hair unlicensed for my family for a while,” Thomas said. “So I figured why not get certified and make it a career?”

Thomas, during his orientation day.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

His plan is to become a master barber and work in Buffalo for a year, then move to one of the Carolinas with his girlfriend and young daughter and open his own shop.

Like Thomas, DiRado sees it as more than just a career opportunity.

“I definitely believe it’s an art. If you look at two barbers, you’re not going to see them doing the same things,” DiRado said. “It’s different in everyone and honestly, everyone is looking for a different look when they’re doing something. Everyone pictures it differently and there’s just so many routes you can take with it, and I just think that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Buffalo School of Cosmetology and Barbering holds open houses for perspective students Mondays and Fridays.