A cut above

The Barber Academy embraces technology, flexibility and vocational education as a route to the middle class

Marshall Pence went to college after high school because his mother wanted him to. He enjoyed the partying at Eastern Kentucky University, but not much else. He called it quits after a year.

His is a common story. Higher education — especially the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree — is widely touted as the definitive way to establish oneself in the middle class. Yet the atmosphere, goals and structure don’t work for everyone, no matter how often they’re shown data mapping out the upward trajectory of average earned wages after each piece of academic credential. Furthermore, some don’t believe the value is there. Tuition is skyrocketing at many institutions, people are defaulting on student loans in record numbers, and, although unemployment rates are higher for those without an education, uncertainty over career stability still looms menacingly overhead. The question on everyone’s minds: Will this be worth it?

Pence decided it wouldn’t be. After ditching his academic pursuits, he decided to enroll in a barber program. He’d always been the guy his friends and family went to for haircuts. Why not make a living out of it?

His mother footed the bill, and now, more than two decades later, she says it was the best investment she ever made. Pence fell in love with the artistry of cutting hair. Through working with customers, he developed better social skills, learned patience and became a better judge of character. He learned to be his own boss and became a small business owner.

Now, Pence wants others to embrace this hands-on profession with the same excitement for it that he has. Last year, Pence opened Southern Indiana’s only barber school, The Barber Academy, in downtown Jeffersonville.

“College is being shoved down throats,” says Pence. “People are running away from vocational schools. … What’s wrong with the welder, a barber? I think it’s an honorable profession.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects average job growth for barbers, hairdressers and cosmetologists. Schooling typically takes about nine months, though a new Indiana law went into effect this summer allowing licensure testing for the most talented barber school students before nine months.

Pence’s students come from all across Louisville Metro and rural Indiana. One is a retired postal worker from Scottsburg, Ind., who thinks a second career as a barber will help his chances of running for public office. Another is a young father who commutes an hour and a half each way from his town in order to attend class. He, like many of the students, dreams about opening his own barbershop some day. Self-employment is common among barbers, either through barbershop ownership or by working as an independent contractor who rents a chair at a shop.

Some at The Barber Academy are fueled by the desire to better their lives after a prison sentence or jail time. Disclosure of conviction is mandatory in Indiana — but not Kentucky — when applying for a license, but overall the profession is seen as welcoming of people with past infractions. The opposite has proven true for many careers and general jobs.

“When people feel they’ve been knocked down and doors have been closed on them, they throw their hands up. They just give up. That’s when you see spikes in crime,” says Pence, adding that one of the program’s unintended goals is building up self-esteem for people who feel disenfranchised.

Some of his students don’t even have a high school diploma. For them, Pence has a special program called Learn 2 Earn, which allows them to study for the barber license and the GED simultaneously. Kentucky and Indiana don’t legally require barber applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but many take advantage of the program for their own benefit.

The programs utilize technology whenever possible. Study guides and reading materials are available through mobile web-based programs, allowing students to read on their smart phones or tablets wherever they have Internet access. It’s convenient and removes the potential embarrassment some might feel when studying in public with a big, bulky book. It may seem silly, says Pence, but for men who’ve been out of school for a upwards of 20 years, things like that matter.

Students can also watch a live online broadcast of individual stations at the barbershop. While those live-streamed hours cannot count toward the student’s mandatory 1,500 practice hours, some find the additional observation helpful.

“You have to take the pride and ego out of it,” Pence says.

The program has already been recognized as a success. In October last year, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels awarded Pence with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Service in Indiana and declared Nov. 5 “Barbershop Appreciation Day.” Louisville Metro followed a few weeks later with its own official appreciation day. The NAACP also awarded Pence a Freedom and Justice Award.

It’s recognition Pence never expected when he first thought about opening his own barber school. He concedes it was the entrepreneurial spirit that first motivated him, but after meeting the people drawn to barber schools, he shifted to a community focus.

Pence saw students quietly drop out because they couldn’t afford their own tools on top of the tuition, so he started offering tools as part of tuition. With the help of sponsors and grants, he was able to slash tuition prices, too. He instituted flexible payment schedules and work schedules. He started giving haircut vouchers to area nonprofits, whose clients now come for a sprucing up before their own job interviews.

“People always say they want to win the lottery, but all anyone really wants is to be in the middle class,” says Pence. “If you have any type of compassion, it wears on your soul. Here, we’re able to help pick people back up.”