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'Dyeing' for a job

WESTAMPTON - Like tryouts for a sports team, they hope to make the cut.

To do so, these contestants must demonstrate their skills at cutting - as well as shampooing, styling, manicuring, shaving, waxing and tweezing.

A total of 575 cosmetology students from across the state are taking the practice part of their state licensing exam this week at the Burlington County Institute of Technology. The testing took place Monday and continues today.

The students who pass the test -along with a theory exam they take at their own high school - will receive their license to work at the art and science of cosmetology in New Jersey.

For these teenagers, it's a big deal.

"This is a billion-dollar industry," said Jay Malanga, executive director of the New Jersey State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling.

The students who become licensed can "earn a substantial amount of money," even working part time, Malanga said.

The first wave of mostly female candidates showed up at the school at 8:30 a.m., pushing rolling tote bags filled with hair dryers, curling irons, water bottles, scissors, and a variety of other beautifying tools.

And they brought their "models" - patient friends or relatives who were willing to sit for more than two hours as the students used them, like live Barbie dolls, to show how they could do different "dos."

For some teens, it was a mother-daughter event.

"I'm the model. I'm her mom," said Nancy Antonelli of Forked River, Ocean County, as her daughter, Lisa, munched on a snack while awaiting the test.

"I want to do barbering," said Lisa Antonelli, a student at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School.

Andi Rose Buccola, 19, of Barnegat, Ocean County, and her mother, Cindy, arrived early for the second session of testing in the afternoon.

"I'm nervous," said Andi Rose Buccola, who wants to be a hair colorist. "We've been working so hard for the past two years."

Gina Ross of Toms River, Ocean County, said she was excited for her daughter, Megan, 17, who acknowledged she just wanted to get the test over with.

Karen Pinardo, a BCIT cosmetology teacher, welcomed the students and examiners. Pinardo, who recently was named "Teacher of the Year" at the school, was glowing.

"It's so exciting. I've been here 20 years," she said.

The testing room had the atmosphere of a large beauty salon, with one exception. It was very quiet as the students listened diligently to Janice Alvarez, board chairwoman, give instructions on each skill they should do while the examiners watched.

The students didn't actually complete a process. They just showed their skill at dyeing, curling, perming and straightening hair as well as "back combing" - another name for teasing. Facials, waxings and scalp treatments also were covered.

When Alvarez told the students to make a cut based on the "occipital bone," it became apparent how serious this test was.

Malanga said today's cosmetology students have a lot to learn - not only about hair styling, but also about massages and manicures. They need to learn about anatomy and the interaction between chemicals used in hair processing and medications a client may be taking. And they must learn how to protect the client from injury or infection.

One of the last facets of the test focuses on the proper ways to clean and sanitize equipment. The students also learn how to run a business.

"It's a great industry," Malanga said, noting that even in a recession, people need their hair cut - though they may not go as often and may pass on the massage. Plus, there are related jobs that cosmetologists can do, such as working as sales representatives, demonstrators or at a television or motion picture studio.

Alvarez said she enjoys giving the test.

"Seeing these students who are so nervous pass their test, it's why we're all here," she said. "The industry is screaming for good stylists."