Barriers to barbering: Amherst barber, politician pushing for changes to state regulations

  • Matt Haskins, owner of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, works on a haircut for regular customer James Roberts of Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins, left, owner of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, and Jonathan Kusek, right, work on haircuts for regular customers James Roberts, center left, of Belchertown, and Griffin Connor, foreground, of Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins, owner of Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, uses a straight razor on a haircut for regular customer James Roberts of Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Haskins is the owner of Matt’s Barber Shop on Boltwood Walk in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tim Dowd and Matt Haight of Tim’s Barber Shop on Federal Street in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tim’s Barber Shop on Federal Street in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Katie Provost of Hinsdale, New Hampshire feeds her 2-year-old son Kolton Provost raisins as Tim Dowd of Tim’s Barber Shop in Greenfield cuts his hair on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2022 3:22:11 PM
Modified: 7/18/2022 3:21:46 PM

Anyone who knows “Matt the Barber” Haskins knows he’s a passionate evangelist and practitioner of his trade. But lately, Haskins has stopped bringing up barbering to people in need of a career, due to the hurdles presented to western Massachusetts residents looking to get into the trade.

Why? The nearest barber school is in Worcester.

“Almost every barber I’ve talked to in western Mass. realizes we need some kind of regulatory change,” said Haskins, who points to the long-distance barrier as a primary reason he believes there’s a shortage of barbers in this part of the state.

Haskins, who owns Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, which he founded in 2008, has a solution that he thinks could begin to fill a “deficit of barbers” that is affecting western Massachusetts. Working with state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Haskins is pushing for a change to state regulations to allow barbers like himself to train students in the barbering curriculum from their barbershops.

This would mean barbers in good standing with the state, like Haskins, could teach out of their shops during their off hours, something current regulations do not allow.

“My goal would be to allow us to hyperlocalize barber training,” Haskins said.

To become a barber in Massachusetts requires completing 1,000 hours of coursework, which Haskins said can be done in six months if one does 40 hours a week. However, the nearest barber school is in Worcester, a significant drive for western Massachusetts residents.

In testimony before the Board of Registration of Cosmetology and Barbering in April, Domb and state Rep. Tackey Chan, the House chair of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, flagged other obstacles, including rules that say a barber school must have at least 25 students and separate facilities for cosmetology and barbering programs. They said they “would appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with your office to create a more favorable environment for barbering schools to open and operate in the commonwealth.”

In his testimony, Haskins said roughly 300 regular clients will “completely max out a barber,” and that in a 20-mile radius around his business, the population outpaces barbers to the point that “we’re now looking at a ratio of about 6,000 people to every one barber.”

“If we do it as usual, if we kind of just accept the normal timeframe for making change, we won’t be meeting the need that exists right now, and the need will continue to grow,” Domb said. “I can’t believe the data Matt provided us with — 6,000 customers to every barber will be 10,000 customers to every barber, and then western Massachusetts will look a mess because we won’t be able to get our hair cut.”

Division of Occupational Licensure Commissioner Layla D’Emilia wrote back to Domb and Chan later that month, informing them that the board had recently approved draft regulations that would lower the required number of barber school chairs from 25 to 15 and permit schools in certain instances to use the same clinic space for cosmetology and barbering programs, with one taking place during the daytime and the other at night.

Haskins said reducing the chair requirement for schools and allowing barber programs to share space with cosmetology programs “gets us closer,” noting that these changes will allow tech schools to open barbering programs. He added that, if there is a chair requirement, it should be three to five chairs.

Domb said that it’s “incredibly important” to have more barbers in western Massachusetts, which she describes as the ultimate small business. Staffing levels, according to Haskins, are the “worst it’s ever been,” with many leaving the profession during the pandemic.

Barber reaction

In Greenfield, Tim Dowd, the owner of Tim’s Barber Shop on Federal Street, said he hadn’t heard about this push to loosen regulations, but it is something he welcomes as it could definitely get more people into the business and allow smaller schools to open in the area.

“I have not heard about loosening the number of chairs but I’m happy about it! I believe this is a move in the right direction,” Dowd, who did 1,000 hours of training at Rob Roy Academy in Worcester, wrote in an email. “I think it would help create a smaller market that gives inspiring barbers a chance without having to move or commute an hour-plus. It would help cut down costs by tens of thousands to start up a school.”

Also in agreement is Steve Prondecki, who used to own Prondo’s Barber Shop in Greenfield before selling it two years ago.

“I just couldn’t grow as a business,” said Prondecki, who now works as a barber in Jupiter, Florida. “I couldn’t find barbers to save my life.”

An old friend of Haskins’, Prondecki said they’ve been trying to figure out a solution for the barber shortage for a while, and he expressed support for Haskins’ efforts to allow barbers to teach from their shops.

Dowd said he’s “been talking about the shortage in the shop for 10 years,” as many people are turned off by the long commute to Worcester for training, and that’s without the additional costs of going to school, gas and the responsibilities of personal life.

“On average, it takes about two years to find one barber, in my experience,” Dowd said. “The commute is what turns most away. Or the cost. ... A career change to become a barber with just those fees is overwhelming, especially if you have kids.”

While lowering the number of seats required to open a school is a good move, Dowd said he’d like other regulations, like the amount of training hours, to remain the same because school and working in an actual shop are “two incredibly different worlds.”

“I learned more my first week in a barbershop than I did in school. You learn real shop interaction with clients, building relationships,” Dowd said. “Myself and Matt (Haight) have worked long enough where we qualify for a (Massachusetts) barber instructors license. But we can’t get that license unless we are committed to working at one of these limited schools.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com. Material from the State House News Service was used in this report. Chris Larabee also contributed to this story.

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