Heather Williams knows she’s in an occupation that is one of the oldest and shows no signs of slowing down in the future.
That’s the field of barbers, hairdressers and cosmetologists, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates will need at least 64,000 more in the profession by the year 2024. That’s on top of the 656,400 people already in those jobs.
For Williams, 33, a Phenix City native, she opted to go the route of master barber, now working at Northside Barber Shop on Moon Road in Columbus. Her mother was a cosmetologist, something Williams opted not to do because of the finicky nature of women and their hair.
On a recent visit, the Smiths Station, Ala., resident and wife and mother of three was joking with other hair-cutting colleagues in the late morning, waiting for the customary flow of walk-in traffic from both regulars and occasional strangers. And that’s exactly what happened heading into the lunch hour.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Williams during the visit about her job, why she chose it and what others should expect if they decide that cutting hair might be for them. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. Where did you go to school to become a barber?
A. I went to Rivertown School of Beauty. The title now is master barber stylist. They cover chemicals, we learn manicures, we learn facials, we learn some business management.
Q. How did you find your way here to Northside Barber Shop?
A. I started back in November. I was into the barber scene and had come out of school. I had a barber friend and was going to his shop and watching and seeing how he did things. (A previous Northside barber) called me up and told me he was leaving here, and I was lucky enough to come in and get along with everybody. We just kind of hit it off.
Q. Why did you enter this field?
A. I’ve always liked dealing with hair. As a teenager, my friends would come over and say, cut my hair. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was like, OK, I’ll do it, and it never turned out really bad. I also had a barber friend that I was talking to one day and he said: Just have a job that you like. He just kind of inspired me to become a barber. We got to talking about it and a barber is one of the world’s oldest professions. It’s not going anywhere. There’s job security.
Q. Did you ever think about doing something else?
A. Well, my mom was a cosmetologist and I knew I didn’t want to do that. Girls can be kind of hard to please sometimes with their hair. Cosmetologists also do makeup and pedicures and manicures. They do a waxing and I just wasn’t excited about that. But I do want to cut hair and I was actually doing dog grooming for a little while before I went to barber school.
Q. That was training of sorts?
A. (laughs) Kinda. I knew when I was doing the dog grooming that I really liked this. Of course, dogs can’t tell you when you’re hurting them. They’ll bite you. And they can’t tell you, hey, you cut my hair and it looks stupid now. But it’s just satisfying to have someone come in and say, hey, I want to get a haircut. You give them a good haircut and it makes them feel good, and it makes you feel good.
Q. That’s why you enjoy it so much?
A. It’s satisfying to see a bushy head of hair and, when you’re done, it’s slick and looks nice and it’s all together. To me, it does something to my heart. It kind of makes my heart smile a little bit, like you gave somebody something to be happy about.
Q. Are you challenged as a barber?
A. Yeah, sometimes. I’m learning every day. There’s something new every day, and I’m always thirsting for something to learn. Especially when it comes to haircuts. There’s different styles, different hair textures. But I just know if I can figure it out, I can do it.
Q. And different hair styles. How do you help people decide on that?
A. It just depends on the preference now, because there’s long hair, and some guys like skin right here (on the sides) and hair on top. Some like a military cut. Older gentlemen kind of like the brush-over a little bit. It depends on what they have. You have to go into a little consultation almost — what do you like, what do you want, what are you expecting, how do you want to wear it? There’s just different things you want to ask them. How’s your lifestyle? Are you a five-minute person or do you want to spend some time on your hair? It just depends on them.
Q. Do you consult your colleagues?
A. Oh yeah, because they’ve been doing it longer than I have. To me, their advice is gold because they’ve seen different things. It goes back to learning something new every day. If I’ve never seen it, I’m going to go to one of them and ask what they think about it.
Q. And you enjoy their company?
A. If you’re not having fun on your job, then it’s not worth it. We have a pretty good environment. There’s always cutting up. It’s fun. This is a great barber shop to be at. I’ve got great people I work with, and there’s great clientele that comes in here. We have a lot of walk-ins. It’s like family.
Q. Can you tell us about what it takes at school?
A. At Rivertown, you have to accumulate 1,500 hours of school time. It took me 11 months. That’s about average, between 10 and 12 months. It can take others longer, a year and a half or two years, if you miss days or you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do. At Rivertown, the class started at 9 and we had an hour of theory. From 10 to 2 we were on the floor cutting.
But you have to be at 250 hours (accrued training) to actually cut a person’s hair. Until then you’re on a mannequin. You’ve got a long-bearded mannequin with long hair and cut on that. I also learned a lot of stuff at school that I wasn’t really sure I was going to use, like roller sets and perms and chemicals, chemical relaxers and color. It’s a lot to take in.
Q. They prepare you for a broad future?
A. Yes. But if a guy came in here and said, hey, I want to do some blonde highlights, I can say that I do that.
Q. What’s the most challenging part of school?
A. Just getting there and being there every day. You don’t choose your classmates, but it always makes it interesting. There are different personalities. And it’s just keeping your goal in front of you and remembering what you’re there for. That’s always a good thing.
Q. What happens beyond school?
A. After you do the schooling, you have to go and get your license from the state. The school sends your information to the state and you have to take your test. You have a practical test and a written test. The practical is where you go in a room and there’s barber chairs lined up and there are other barbers in there and you have to perform a haircut, a facial, a shave and a blow dry. You have to go to Atlanta to do it.
Q. Long term, would you want your own barber shop?
A. Of course. I definitely aspire to have something to pass down, maybe, to my kids.
Q. It sounds like, as with many people, you have a passion for this?
A. It’s such a great job. You meet new people all the time, and there’s different personalities. And you get to see kids grow up. They come in here and they’ll be little babies, and 10 years down the road they’re teenagers, and 10 years more and they’re in adulthood. Even if they move away and come back at some point, they still want you to cut their hair. It’s definitely a bond there.
Q. What advice do you have for someone considering this occupation?
A. You need to have passion. Be passionate about what you do. Be passionate about the people that you work with. Have passion for yourself to get through it, because it’s not going to be easy. You just have to dig your heels in and hit the ground running. Self motivation is definitely a big key to it.
Hometown: Phenix City
Current residence: Smiths Station, Ala.
Education: Has a General Educational Development diploma, and earned her barber stylist certificate from Rivertown School of Beauty in Columbus
Previous jobs: Dog groomer, grocery store cashier, and worked in a metal craft business helping build gates at Fort Benning
Family: Husband, Jason, and three stepdaughters — Trinity, 15, Kaidon, 10, and Reese, 9; also has three pet family members — dogs Marley, a German Shepherd, and Abby, a Chihuahua, and a large Maine Coon cat named Garfsmarf
Leisure time: Enjoys riding bicycles on the riverwalk, taking family trips, and spending times with her kids and their various sports and activities