A Good Head for Business: New England School of Hair Design Has New Owners

  • At the New England School of Hair Design, Ruby Rogers, 7 was about to have her hair cut by student Jane Allen, of Hardwick, Vt. on Dec. 20, 2017 in West Lebanon, N.H. Ruby's parents Nichole and Kenny Rogers, of White River Junction were with her for the cut. This is Ruby's second haircut. Her mother comes to the school to get her own hair cut. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New England School of Hair Design student, Cathea Grover, left, of West Lebanon, N.H., arranges an appointment on Dec. 20, 2017 at the school in West Lebanon. With her is Crystal Hicks, the new owner of the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New England School of Hair Design student Adam Connelly, of Grantham, N.H. cuts Jean Brooks's hair on Dec. 20, 2017 in West Lebanon, N.H., Brooks has been getting her hair cut at the school since she was a teenager when the school was in Claremont, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New England School of Hair Design student Savanna Josler of Tunbridge, Vt., works on her business project at the school on Dec. 20, 2017 in West Lebanon, N.H. Students develop a plan to create their own salon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New England School of Hair Design student Melanie Eastman, of Springfield, Vt., works on fellow student Courtney Derrington's hair on Dec. 20, 2017 in West Lebanon. When students have a little free time they sometimes practice on one another. Derrington is from Woodsville, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2017

West Lebanon— Adam Connelly tried the Navy, social work and carpentry. All those occupations were interesting for a while but offered mostly inflexibility, low pay or instability.

Then Connelly, of Grantham, found an occupation in chronic need of workers, that pays better than social work, but at the same time involves interacting with people and is highly social.

He is training to become a cosmetologist.

“I just had an epiphany all of a sudden,” said Connelly, who would cut his shipmates’ hair when he was on deployment in the Middle East. “Barber was the initial idea, but there are no barber schools in the area,” he said. So it occurred to him, “Why not women’s hair? That’s where the money is.”

Connelly, 34, is now training to become a stylist at the New England School of Hair Design. He is one of 23 students currently enrolled in the West Lebanon school, next to Joe’s Equipment Service, who are learning the principles of hair styling, perming, cutting, coloring, braiding, washing and blowing.

He’s more than halfway through his 1,500-hour training program and expects to graduate in February, at which time he will take the state licensing exam and look for a job in an Upper Valley salon.

Connelly could be making a smart choice.

Styling and cutting hair is one job that is unlikely to be lost to the internet or robots. The demand for barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists is expected to grow 10 percent — up 70,500 from the current 673,700 — over the next 10 years, according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Faster than average for all occupations,” the bureau notes about future job prospects in the field, as population growth will lead to greater demand for hair services.

In September, veteran New England School of Hair Design instructor and administrator Crystal Hicks and her husband, Dennis Hicks Jr., acquired the school from its longtime owners, Gary and Brenda Trottier. Hicks, herself a 2000 graduate, had been director of the school since 2004.

“It seemed the time was right for me,” Gary Trottier said of selling the school to Hicks. (He’s keeping the building, where he relocated the school from Claremont in 1985.) “I had the key employee to whom I had passed along what I knew and she knows the business inside and out.”

Trottier, a former board member of the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology, and Esthetics, comes from a family of barbers and cosmetologists. His parents started the Keene Beauty Academy in 1964, both his brothers became hairdressers, and he still operates Mr. T’s Styling Salon in Claremont.

“I once figured there are 120 small towns that feed into the Interstate 89 corridor. And there’s a hairdresser or two in every small town in the world. That’s why it’s (a) sustainable” occupation, he said.

One of the changes Hicks is undertaking as the new owner is to introduce a “crossover” program in which currently licensed cosmetologists can meet additional requirements to become a licensed barber. One of the school’s instructors is a licensed master barber and Hicks herself is in the process of getting her barber’s license.

“Barbering is really taking off,” Hicks said. “When it used to be just hairdressing expos, now there are barbering expos where you see this amazing clipper work and men’s styling.”

Hicks said she was drawn early on to a career as a cosmetologist, although she didn’t know the word for it at the time. “I was the one who was guilty of cutting my Barbie’s hair,” she said. “I always loved doing people’s hair.”

New England School of Hair Design is both a school and a working salon where students learn by cutting and styling actual clients’ hair — after they have first received about three months training.

“We get them used to handling tools first before handing them something sharp,” Hicks said.

Cosmetology is an occupation that involves close contact between the practitioner and client. That makes some students in the beginning nervous. “Haircutting can be very intimidating for the student,” Hicks said. So the first thing students are taught in the classroom is how to braid hair.

“It’s a nice introduction into getting the fingers working, motor skills and dexterity,” Hicks said.

Tuition for the approximately 13-month program is $17,750. There are other costs, too. Students are required to purchase their own “kit” — the tools of the trade, such as scissors, clippers, blow-dryer, curling iron, brushes, razors, combs — that typically run another $2,700.

Students also have to purchase their own mannequin heads (with real human hair) at about $60 apiece, on which they practice. A student can be expected to go through five mannequin heads during the course of the program.

Hicks said more than 80 percent of the students receive loans from the government to help pay for the program.

As the only cosmetology school in the Upper Valley — other cosmetology schools are in the Concord-Manchester area and Laconia area in New Hampshire, and Burlington in Vermont — New England School of Hair Design draws students from all around the region, including Claremont, St. Johnsbury, Rutland and Newport, N.H. Hicks said 84 percent of all graduates land a job afterward.

The school also works with the high school cosmetology programs at the Hartford Area Career & Technology Center and River Bend Career & Technical Center in Bradford, Vt., where students who begin in those programs receive advanced credit when enrolling in the school.

Melanie Eastman, of Springfield, Vt., does not graduate until April — but she already has a job lined up.

Eastman, 35, had worked at Listen Community Services for 15 years and had long wanted to work in a salon, but she kept putting it off until she was encouraged by Julie Beauchain, owner of Haircuts Just Around the Corner on Summer Street in Springfield. “I love to style, I love the creative part of it. I’ve been doing hair and makeup since I was a little girl — I cut my sister’s hair after I bribed her,” she recalled. “I had applied (to New England School of Hair Design) three or four times before, but it was never the right time. I decided it was time.”

That push came from Beauchain, who has known Eastman since she was young and her long-held but unrealized ambition. “She’s very talented with hair, but I told her, ‘You have to get a license.’ I bugged her for a long time about it,” Beauchain said. “One day I told her dad, whose hair I cut, ‘Have Melanie give me a call. I’m almost 60 and hopefully will be retiring in five years and she would be a great replacement for me.’ ”

New England School of Hair Design alumnus Amber King, who graduated in 2014 after initially working in child care, is now the manager of Supercuts in West Lebanon, in addition to being a fill-in instructor at the school. King said the need for stylists should give anyone encouragement who is weighing cosmetology as a career.

“I let students know it’s a lot of hard work but the demand for stylists is very high right now,” King said. (Walk-in customers to Supercuts without an appointment typically find they have to wait at least an hour before a chair opens up).

The school operates a 44-chair salon where women can get their hair styled and men their hair cut. Students are classified as “emerald,” “sapphire,” “ruby” and “diamond” according to their experience level and rates charged accordingly, beginning at $10 and up to $27, depending on the service.

The fees go to the school, although students are allowed to pocket the tips.

One longtime customer favorite: The Q-Ball Club — “a half-price haircut for men with half the hair,” which comes out to $5. But Hicks said she is not too fussy about who qualifies. “I’m not going to tell anybody no if they ask for it,” she said.

Trottier, the school’s former owner, said cosmetology is an occupation that can weather the upheavals in the job market caused by economic cycles and technology.  He said his grandparents became hair cutters — the occupation had not yet evolved into cosmetology — when they lost their jobs at the Lebanon Woolen Mills during the Great Depression. Working in a salon is “not something that can be outsourced,” Trottier said.

Beauchain said she has often heard Trottier tell the story about how becoming hairdressers got his family through the depression.

“Right there, I knew I was in the right job,” Beauchain said. “You’ve got to look good.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.