SERGEANT BLUFF -- Every now and then, a new customer will walk into Cutting Corner Barber Shop at the corner of Fourth and E streets in Sergeant Bluff, and ask, "Where's the male barber?"
Jodie Stuhrenberg, who has been cutting men's hair for 27 years, assures the customer that she's up to the task.
Barbering is traditionally a male-dominated field. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that male barbers still drastically outnumber female barbers. Of the 126,000 barbers employed in the United States in 2016, just 11.7 percent of them were women.
Barbering seems to run in Stuhrenberg's family. Her mother Saundra Waterbury opened Cutting Corner Barber Shop in 1980. Her late-aunt Janet Matt was an instructor at Sioux City's barber college, which has since closed, while her aunt Pam Frahm works as a barber in Wakefield, Nebraska. Her sister Robbin Harrison used to be a barber.
Stuhrenberg grew up watching her mother cut hair at her barber shop, where a red, white and blue striped barber pole flanks windows underneath a light burgundy awing. Back then, government and farming were popular topics of conversation and still are today.
"I remember a lot of guys that would just come in and talk about things that were going on in the world. It's a totally different atmosphere than a beauty shop where they're going to talk about celebrities, haircuts and clothing," Stuhrenberg said.
After spending more than a semester pursing a business degree in Norfolk, Nebraska, Stuhrenberg decided to pick up a scissors and head to barber college. She said she had no desire to work with highlights and all-over hair color in a salon. Like her mother, who retired from the profession two years ago, she just wanted to cut hair.
"For them it was definitely a journey because it was considered a man's job," Stuhrenberg said of her relatives who entered the profession before her. "For me, it's easy, because they paved the way."
The opportunity for more women, and men, to enter the profession of barbering seems ripe.
Terry Millis, president of the American College of Hairstyling in Des Moines, said there are county seats in Iowa that have no barbers. He said retiring barbers are looking for hair professionals to buy their shops or even take over their businesses free of charge.
Iowa Workforce Development expects the number of licensed barbers to grow by 2.3 percent each year through 2022.
Millis said there are "big incentives" to get into the barbering business. He said a barber can make a significant amount of money, be his or her own boss and have the freedom to move around the state and the country.
"There has been a big influx of people wanting to start barbering since 10 years ago," Millis said. "We're filled with a waiting list. We just can't meet the demand for barbers."
One interesting trend that Millis noted is the growing number of fully licensed beauticians enrolling at the American College of Hairstyling to obtain a dual license in barbering. He said the college, which has been training barbers for 119 years, gives students ample hands-on practice in all types of hair care.
"We just graduated a couple in the last few months and we have several in school right now," he said of licensed beauticians.
Stuhrenberg, who contends that barbering is a "dying art," points to the lack of a barber college in Sioux City as a major contributing factor to the shortage of barbers in Siouxland. Sioux City's former barber college closed in the early 90s.
"Get as much education and hands-on experience as you can," she advises the next generation of barbers. "Work under somebody, because that's what helped with my career."
Never the same
There are no appointments at Cutting Corner Barber Shop, where fish caught by Stuhrenberg's mother are mounted on a wall covered in faux stone wallpaper. The atmosphere is relaxed and home-like.
Some customers, Stuhrenberg said, are farmers who come in straight from the fields. Others are young men who seek hard part haircuts and other trendy looks.
"There's always new challenges. It's never the same. That's what's kind of nice with this industry," said Stuhrenberg, who returns to school every two years to keep up on the latest styles.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Stuhrenberg sat at a table near her barber chair resting her feet after a busy holiday season. She said one of the major challenges of running a barbershop is budgeting for the slow times of the year. She said the shop is either busy or it's not.
"Before Christmas, everybody's upbeat and they're wanting to look good for the holidays. A couple weeks before Thanksgiving, it starts picking up," she said, minutes before Bill Johnson, of Sloan, Iowa, walked in the door.
Johnson, a former flight line mechanic who retired from the Iowa Air National Guard in 1990, was a customer of Stuhrenberg's mother in the 80s until a barbershop open in Sloan. A few years ago when that shop, which was also run by a woman, closed, Johnson again became a regular customer at Cutting Corner Barber Shop.
"Every so often, I had to stop in here for emergencies anyway," he explained, while an electric clipper buzzed in the background.
When asked if he would ever consider visiting a salon, Johnson, who opts for a short, regular haircut, responds with a simple, "No." He likes the barber shop atmosphere.
"I don't care who is in here. You can always find someone to talk to. If no one else, there's the barber," he said. "I'm not against going to a woman barber."