All About Salon Apprenticeship Programs

What is apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship is an employer-driven on-the-job training model that allows an employee to earn wages while they learn how to perform trade. Typically, apprentices are also required to follow a job-related curriculum to ensure they meet the minimum standards to attain a professional license.

Where are cosmetology apprenticeships legal?

Cosmetology apprenticeships are legal in the following states. I have linked the relevant information. However, as there are fifty states, each with their own regulations, please do not consider this list exhaustive.

If your state is not listed, don’t assume apprenticeships aren’t legal. Check with your state board.

How can an apprenticeship program benefit employers?

For starters, salon owners generally have the flexibility to customize their training strategy to meet the needs of their salon. This flexibility allows them to provide more comprehensive training in critically necessary skills and focus less on techniques and practices that may no longer be marketable or relevant. This results in a measurable competitive advantage.

There are financial benefits as well. For instance, sponsors who employ apprentices can compensate those employees less than a newly licensed graduate. Those wages will have to increase incrementally as the apprentice becomes more educated and their skills improve, but state tax credits may also be available to further help defray the cost of training.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary, most significant benefit salon owners will take from an apprenticeship program is reduced employee turnover. The facts don’t lie: apprentices tend to remain employed up to two years longer than typical employees.

According to the Department of Labor, 91% of apprentices that complete an apprenticeship are still employed nine months later.

Staffing can be extremely challenging in our industry, often through no fault of our own. The business—as a whole—suffers from high attrition rates. While I believe these issues begin in the offices of school recruiters (who often present a version of the industry that hardly resembles reality), the fact is that most of the professionals leaving the industry are doing so not because they don’t love the craft but because they weren’t adequately prepared by their educators or their employers.

Apprenticeship programs allow professionals to experience the workplace while training, in an arrangement that requires the employer and the educator to collaborate for their benefit, virtually guaranteeing that the apprentice will develop an accurate impression of the business and the job itself.

You can help create professionals who understand the industry and their role in it, and who are unlikely to experience the “rude awakening” effect driving many traditionally educated professionals away from this career.

How do apprenticeships benefit professionals?

Professionals can benefit greatly from a properly structured apprenticeship program provided by a qualified, passionate employer.

In traditional beauty schools, students are at the mercy of the curriculum and the student/teacher ratio. Apprentices may find that they get more focused attention and have more control over the education they receive.

Although they are typically required to complete more hours than traditionally educated beauty professionals, apprentices are compensated while learning. Apprentices complete their education debt-free and, unlike traditionally educated licensees, do not lose two years of compensable time.

Apprentices are also less likely to have gaps in their education.

Unfortunately, our beauty school curriculum hasn’t evolved much in the last 50 or 60 years, and it’s impractical to expect textbook publishers to keep pace with the rapid developments in techniques and product technology. It’s a well-established (and infuriating) fact that too few schools bother to give highly textured hair the training time and focus it deserves, leaving many graduates unequipped to properly serve all clients. As a result, cosmetology graduates are often not trained in vital areas, like braiding and chemical texture services. Thanks to the flexibility afforded to many sponsors, apprentices are more likely to gain experience and training in the areas our schools have neglected to adequately address.

Apprentices also receive invaluable real-world experience interacting with customers on a daily basis. While traditionally educated beauty professionals can gain this experience working on the clinic floor, there’s an important distinction between the expectations of a clinic client and a salon customer. Apprentices will typically be held to a higher standard when interacting and serving customers than a student will, and the stakes for the former are much higher than those for the latter. A negative interaction may result in disciplinary action for a student, but an apprentice could lose their job and their sponsor.

What’s the catch?

Sponsors typically have to jump through some regulatory hoops to establish the program, and there are often some reporting requirements to comply with. However, most states have apprenticeship councils and industry associations to provide support and assistance.

Apprentices require a significant time investment. Sponsors will be training a new employee from scratch. The apprentice may not have any experience at all, so it may be a while before a salon owner begins to benefit from the arrangement.

How do I create an apprenticeship program?

Step 1: Check your state regulations.

You may have some prep work to do before you’re able to begin accepting apprentices, but your state may also provide a wealth of assistance in establishing and managing a program. Most states will also register your program with the federal government for you.

Step 2: Partner with local schools and state agencies to create your program outline.

Apprenticeships typically combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction and/or independent study. If your state requires some degree of classroom instruction, you’ll likely need to partner with a community college, technical school, or other recognized education provider.

This instruction may not actually take place within a physical classroom. Many states permit apprentices to complete their classwork online.

Step 3: Calculate the apprentice’s incremental wage increases.

Apprentice wages are raised incrementally over time. (This is a requirement of the federal government and most state governments as well.) Your state may or may not require you to have your starting wage and ending wage mapped out, but it would be advisable to plan out the skill benchmarks and wage raises for your apprentices in advance. This will give them something to work toward and a sense of progression. Additionally, they will know what to expect from the program, eliminating the possibility of the terms becoming a point of contention in the future.

Step 4: Design accountability systems.

Whether your state requires it or not, create goals and protocols for evaluating and tracking the apprentice’s progress. This will hold both of you accountable to one another.

You and the apprentice are working in partnership towards the goal of producing a well-trained, competent professional. Neither party should be doing the majority of the heavy lifting.

Your accountability system could include weekly/monthly skill assessments, a detailed curriculum, performance metric monitoring, or all of the above.

How can cosmetology apprentices can avoid being scammed?

Apprentices should be wary. While I lack statistics, in my own experience as a consultant and Person Who People Complain to About Exploitation in the Beauty Industry™, I’ve been contacted a considerable number of times by apprentices who have been victimized by illegitimate sponsors. These sponsors typically didn’t pay the apprentices, required them to sign contracts that held the apprentice responsible for exorbitant “training fees” if they quit before their term expired, and didn’t provide any actual training—instead using their apprentices as free or extremely low-cost labor.

When these apprentices were due to sit for their exams, these illegitimate sponsors (nearly all of whom weren’t in compliance and didn’t have valid apprenticeship programs in the first place) would refuse to validate their hours, essentially holding their apprentice hostage by interfering with their future.

I couldn’t tell you why, but many of these complaints come from Michigan. I can only speculate, but I suspect it may be due to the fact that the sponsor has the authority to administer the exam and submit the results to the state board. Apprentices may have the option to report the sponsor and petition the board for the ability to sit for the exam without sponsor endorsement, but if there’s a protocol for that, I can find no evidence of it.

To avoid falling into a scam, aspiring apprentices should be very familiar with their state’s requirements for apprenticeship programs and should plan to hold themselves accountable for ensuring their rights aren’t violated (for instance, by tracking their own hours and keeping a daily service record).

A program is only as good as the sponsor running it.

Those who wish to pursue apprenticeship as a path to licensure should look out for the following red flags:

  • “Intern” apprentices: This isn’t a thing. The words “intern” and “apprentice” cannot be used interchangeably as they aren’t synonymous. Interns in legal internship programs are not considered employees and do not displace regular employees, whereas apprentices certainly are considered employees and do displace regular employees. A proper sponsor knows this.
  • No compensation: As stated earlier, apprentices must be paid. Any “sponsor” who tells you that apprentices aren’t eligible for pay isn’t a real sponsor.
  • No applications, written agreements, or recordkeeping: Requirements vary from state to state, but generally, apprentices must submit an application to the state board for approval, the program must be registered and have an approved outline, and sponsors must track an apprentice’s hours. (See Alabama’s cosmetology apprenticeship requirements, for example.)
  • More than one apprentice: Again, laws vary, but few permit sponsors to apprentice more than one person at a time.
  • Sponsor intimidation and/or evasion when questioned or challenged: Every time I’m contacted about apprenticeships, it’s by a professional who has become alarmed at their sponsor’s behavior and treatment of them. In every instance where this has been their primary motivation for contacting me, the apprenticeship has not been legitimate. If a potential sponsor can’t or won’t answer your questions patiently, respectfully, or with answers that makes sense, that person likely isn’t really a sponsor.

Potential apprentices would be well advised to do their own research about their state’s requirements for a legal apprenticeship program before entertaining the idea.

Ultimately, it will be up to you to ensure you’re entering a valid arrangement. It’s always better to avoid being taken advantage of than to attempt to hold someone responsible for exploiting you after-the-fact.

If you’re interested in creating an apprenticeship program in your salon or seeking licensure through apprenticeship, check out the following resources. If you have any experience in this area that you’d like to share, tell us in the comments!

U.S. Department of Labor: Quick-Start Apprenticeship Toolkit
U.S. Department of Labor: Apprenticeships


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