Student hair stylists make the cut

Danielle Linke, 18, of Hamilton, works on her sister Jennifer Linke. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Danielle Linke, 18, of Hamilton, works on her sister Jennifer Linke. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 24, 2012

A Garden State cosmetology and hairstyling exam offers none of the dish, disco, or “Jerseylicious” attitude of, say, a salon.

Except for the snip-snip of scissors and the swoosh of sprays, silence rules as aspiring stylists labor on live models under the razor-sharp gaze of licensing examiners.

“We take it seriously,” says Barbara A. Ambroise, a program development assistant with the New Jersey Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling. “It is serious.”

During a 2½-hour mass exam Tuesday at Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton, the faces of about 150 young women and a dozen young men are fierce with concentration.

Their hands don’t stop moving, and neither do 23 examiners who circulate around them with checklist-laden clipboards. Silently, under bright lights that can illuminate every misstep, the students cut, curl, and comb-out on command, their movements almost military with precision.

This ain’t a “reality” show like Shear Genius, or Tabatha’s Salon Takeover; style is of no interest to the examiners. They want to make sure potentially injurious instruments and hazardous products are handled correctly, and that sanitary standards are met. Not for nothing is the state Attorney General’s Office the ultimate authority over nearly 50 professional licensing boards in the state.

“You are to prepare your model for a facial,” instructs a voice over the P.A.

“You may begin effleurage.”

Nearly 1,000 fingers start massaging the faces of the models, most of them family or friends of the students. They sit, stoically and silently, wearing smocks at long tables on which each stylist has unpacked a small suitcase of supplies — the tools of the trade they hope they’ve mastered.

These kids, who remind me of my own working-class family, are indeed serious. Their futures are on the line.

“The misconception is that everybody goes to cosmetology school to polish nails all day,” says Janice Alvarez, chairwoman of the cosmetology board.

“It’s not like that at all. Cosmetology involves so many disciplines. We use geometry to cut hair, we use anatomy to do facials. Cosmetology is biology, and chemistry.”

During two days of mass exams at the Burlington County Institute, the board evaluates 604 students from public vocational schools from across the state. The annual pre-graduation program began in 1992 and in my view is a savvy and admirable effort by a regulatory agency.

“Our goal ... is to help the hundreds of qualified graduates of vocational schools and other training programs to get into the job market and begin their new careers,” Eric T. Kanefsky, acting director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs, says via e-mail.

To take the practical exam, students must first pass a written, or “theoretical,” test. Typically, about 95 percent of all test-takers pass; those who fail are welcome to try again.

And while there already are about 84,000 licensed cosmetologists/stylists in New Jersey, board members say salons are hiring. A talented stylist at a salon with a good location can annually earn $60,000 or more.

“This is important to me, because I’m actually the first one in my family to graduate,” says Itzel Fuentes, 19, of Bridgeton, a student at Cumberland County Technical Education Center. “I really want my license. I want to have a career.”

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at

To view video of the mass cosmetology test, go to

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