Thomas adds that the chance to get to work at Natural ‘Do, a hair salon owned by Valonne Smith that caters to Black women and others with textured hair, crucially allows her to make money while she trains. “The apprentice program costs $2,400 [these fees go to the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology], which means I’m winning as far as money goes, versus the thousands I’d pay for school.” 

After two years and 3,200 hours of training, apprentices like Thomas can apply for the state board. If she passes, she’ll get her cosmetology license just like anyone else. “[I like] being in a salon working with all types of hair,” she says. “If you can do textured hair, you can do any type of hair. It’s an honor to learn more about my own hair, and how to work with textured hair — make it grow, and recommend products. It’s a good feeling that I wouldn’t change for anything.”

Smith tells Allure that she began accepting applicants for the apprenticeship program due to the realities of the student debt crisis. “When people go to cosmetology school, they can’t work full time, because they need 1,600 hours in school to get their license,” she explains. “It’s basically like a year and a half, and many people consider that a struggle, because they might work a night job or a couple of days here and there, but it’s a challenge when you’re not making money.” 

One 2021 report from the Institute for Justice found that the average cosmetology program costs more than $16,000, and that the average student graduates their program with around $7,100 in federal student loans. That same report found that, on average, those graduates can expect to make around only around $26,000 in their first year. 

Plus, Smith enjoys giving apprentices the chance to learn while working in a salon, which gives them exposure to what their lives will eventually be like once they’re certified. “You’re getting paid to learn and build up a clientele,” she says. “I don’t know how you could beat that.”

Thomas hopes that more people will take advantage of the program. She says she was the only Black student in her program’s classroom at first, though others have joined since she started. “People need to understand how this program works,” she adds. “It will change lives.”

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