It’s clinic time at the American Barber Academy in Reading, and amid the buzz of electric clippers and the sound of shears snipping, nearly a dozen uniformed students, nearly all male, practice cutting hair on each other or on walk-in customers who stopped in for $7 cuts.
Five young men, clipboards in hand, stand in a circle around a fellow student draped in a black cape, relaxed and reclining with his eyes closed in a barber chair.
They watch intently and take notes as their teacher, Nelson Pagan, sanitizes his hands with alcohol before scooping white cream from a jar and dabbing it on his student’s face, describing each step of the way.
“What are the three types of massage?” Pagan asks.
“Effleurage, petrissage and friction,” one of them answers.
“See how I’m rubbing? That’s called effleurage,” Pagan says as he demonstrates long, sweeping strokes on his student, who by now appears to be in a blissful sleep.
“I avoid the smack, you know what I’m saying,” a student says, referring to a brisk hand slap to the cheek. A couple students concur.
“Oh, I had one guy who liked the smack. He said it was invigorating,” another said.
At which point in the discussion Pagan steps in and tells them to avoid the slap because it will startle their clients.
Overseeing it all with a watchful eye is George Ortiz Jr., CEO and founder of the 6-year old academy, where enrollment has grown exponentially and it has become one of the most sought-after barber schools in the region.
Last year, up against some of the area’s biggest names in business, Ortiz won the Entrepreneurial Excellence Award from the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry. The criteria to qualify were tough; among the requirements are revenue increases the past three years and revenues exceeding $250,000 in the most recent fiscal year.
FILLING THE CHAIRS
Ortiz and his barber school are a success story, but it was not achieved without struggle. Seated behind his desk in his small office off the main floor, Ortiz reflected on a recent day about the long, hard climb to fulfill his dream.
“I came in with only $35,000. Looking back, I got through on hard work, blood, sweat and tears,” he said.
Driven with a burning desire to produce the kind of professional barbers he wanted but couldn’t find to fill the three-chair barber shop he operated in Kenhorst, Ortiz obtained a $35,000 microloan from Reading’s community development department to launch his barber school.
“My goal was to create an upscale, modern suburban male barber shop,” said Ortiz, who is the picture of a well-groomed man: immaculate, glowing skin and a clean-shaven bald head.
TRAIN THEM HIMSELF
But what Ortiz wanted didn’t exist in the Reading area.
“At the time the only barber shops in the suburbs were old-time barber shops,” he said.
Ortiz knew there was a market for upscale barber shops in the suburbs, but he needed reliable, professional, licensed barbers who were trained in the latest styles and techniques – everything from the traditional just-a-little-off-the-top to trendy fades that a good barber can design, clip and carve in a variety of ethnic hair types.
STARTED WITH TWO STUDENTS
Ortiz knew if he wanted to be able to staff that kind of upscale barber shop, he would have to create a school and train them himself.
So at 26, he launched the American Barber Academy in a 2,200-square-foot building at 110 Morgantown Road in Reading, still its home today.
He started with two students.
This year, 40 students are enrolled and dozens more have graduated during the six years the school has been open.
The first three years were tough, but the academy got a boost in 2015 when it earned Title 4 status from the U.S. Department of Education and got accreditation from the National Accredited Commission of Career Arts and Science.
The accreditation not only gives the school credibility, it enables it to offer financial aid to students.
“Prior to that, we had no funding,” Ortiz said. “Students had to pay cash to go to school.”
Being eligible for funding has made a world difference, he said.
Financial aid has made it possible for more students to afford the $18,995 tuition and for the school to attract students from a wider geographic area.
Ortiz said having access to federal funding has enabled him to expand programing, hire more staff and add more equipment.
“We invest heavily in our students, faculty and equipment,” Ortiz said.
DRESS LIKE A PROFESSIONAL
The school offers three programs – barber; barber crossover for licensed cosmetologists who want to learn or improve their barbering skills and a barber instructors program. The program takes about 10 months to complete.
The school added morning, afternoon and evening classes so students who work different shifts can attend.
Ortiz runs a tight ship. The school has a strict dress code; students must wear dress slacks, dress shoes and either the black barber uniform top or a black or gray shirt.
“If you dress like a professional, people take you seriously,” Ortiz said.
STUDENTS KEEP THE EQUIPMENT
On this day, as she oversaw two new students struggling to comb parts on mannequin heads, Alexis John, director of education, said the American Barber Academy is in a league of its own.
“I absolutely love it,” said John, who taught at another barber school before recently joining the faculty at the American.
John said she could tell immediately it was a professional organization.
“Their main focus is the students,” she said. “They have all the supplies they need, and the organization is amazing.
Tuition includes the registration fee, books, a barber kit and Chrome tablet. Students get to keep the tablet and the kit, which includes tools a barber needs to begin working: clippers, shears and razors.
Ortiz said his barber school was the first in the market, giving him a competitive edge – he’s doing it right and meeting a need.
Employment for barbers in the U.S. is projected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026. While the median hourly wage for barbers was $12.38 in May 2016 – according to the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic – money can be made, Ortiz said.
Barbers who are working for someone else can make $25,000 to $60,000, he said.
“Barbers with lots of followers get the jobs,” Ortiz said. “It’s a go-getter job. You have to like people.”
Many aspire to open their own shop with barbers working multiple chairs, where there’s opportunity to make more money.
Ortiz said the barber shop market has become more competitive since he opened the school.
NEEDED A NEW CAREER
Bryan Schwarz, a 23-year-old from Myerstown who would be graduating in a week, said he already had a job lined up at Whiskers Barber Co. and Shave Parlor in Sinking Spring. The owner, a graduate of the American Barber Academy, opened the shop last year.
Schwarz was a landscaper but said he had to find another career after suffering injuries from a car accident.
“I had never cut hair before,” he said.
Now, Schwarz said, he’s found his new calling and he’s partial to shear work and giving shaves with a straight razor.
It turns out he’s a natural, Ortiz said.
“It’s definitely not for everybody,” Ortiz said.
While skills are important, Ortiz said, reliability and professionalism are just as important.
The American Barber Academy is a chance at not only a new career, but a new life.
Jeffrey Santos, 22, of Reading, who plans to graduate in November, said he enrolled in the school because, “I wanted to get off the streets. I see young kids dying.”
Sporting a freshly shaved fade that a fellow student had designed, Sporto said he’s discovered there’s more to barbering than using clippers.
Taino Collado, 18, of Reading, who has been cutting hair since he was 14, is pursuing his dream job.
“I love it,” he said. “I want to open my own shop someday.”