Business Management

Where Is Everyone Going?

Is a migrating workforce threatening the future of the nail industry? Or is it only a case of the strong surviving? A NAILS survey reveals what temptations and frustrations motivate nail technicians to leave the industry.

The NAILS 1994 Reader Survey showed that the average nail technician has been in the business for 4.8 years. What happened to all those who entered the business during the early ‘80s, when the demand for artificial nails exploded?

A new survey on job satisfaction, conducted by NAILS, gives a few clues. NAILS conducted a mailed survey among 500 paid readers. We received an 8% response and found that the responses were startling similar.

Of those who responded, 43% had considered or were currently considering leaving the industry. The primary reasons cited were health problems, frustration with extraordinarily long hours cutting deeply into personal lives, and the inability to make a significant income — particularly in the first few years. A lack of job benefits, professional respect, and career stability, as well as low income, were the top four things respondents liked least about being a nail technician. Additionally, 70% of respondents were married, which highlights the industry’s catch-22: A technician salary doesn’t permit many to make it alone, yet long hours in the salon erode family life. It makes you wonder, who would stay in the profession?

On the positive side, technicians definitely take their work seriously. An overwhelming majority believe doing nails is a career, not just a job, respondents said that what they like most are the people in the business and the creativity that doing nails allows. (Already, clues emerge as to the personality type best suited for longevity in the industry.)

More good news: There are technicians making $1,000 a week and up, and 57% of the respondents said they are in the industry for the long haul.

Who Answered The Call

Survey respondents averaged 6.26 years in the business, which is longer than the national average. The longest tenure was 18 years; the shortest, six months. Not surprisingly, the six-monther was already considering leaving the business because of difficulties building a steady clientele. But not all beginners have tough times. One of the top earners, Miriam Woods, makes $1,000 a week after just one year working as a technician.

While creativity was ranked high as a job plus, many respondents did not come from fields that are traditionally considered creative. Perhaps that was what they were missing. Previous jobs included waitress, accountant, nurse, secretary, salesperson, nuclear medicine technologist, bank teller, bus company owner, construction worker, physical therapy assistant, substance abuse counselor, and florist. Nail technician was a first job for very few. Respondents’ average weekly income, $344.50, is slightly higher than what NAILS found to be the national average in 1994. Several noted that their clients were cutting back on nail services and that this year was leaner than past years.

Respondents ranged in age from 23 to 56, making their average age 36 Just one was a man, and 20% hold second jobs.

Put it all together and you have a group that is slightly older than the national average, has been in the business two years longer, yet makes just slightly more than the national average. Given this, it may well be true that those who take the time to fill out a job satisfaction survey are more likely to be unsatisfied for one reason or another.

A Look At Who Left The Business

After 13 years in the business, Lynette Lapoint called it quits when she and her husband gained custody of his children from a previous marriage.

“At my peak, I was working 10- hour days, and suddenly I needed to be home,” she says. “But also. I was becoming increasingly concerned with fumes from products.

I cut back hours at first and noticed that I started feeling really good almost immediately. So I installed a high-end ventilation system in the salon that vented to the outside. It had a tremendous effect on how I felt in the salon, which really made me think. I love the business and I’ll miss it, but I would only go back if I really needed the money.”

Charlotte Shanks, who lives near Cape Coral, Fla., also left the business after a very short stint.

“I was allergic to the products,” she explains. “It started almost immediately, when I was in school. I was pregnant then, and your hormones put your body in a different state. Even though I made it through school, I continued to have problems with shortness of breath and my throat closing up. There were some products that I was able to use, but they were so expensive that I couldn’t pay for them and compete in my area. I could see that there was no way being a nail technician was going to be profitable for me. Now, I work in a bank and have a steady paycheck.”

Christine Johnson, who thought doing nails would have been perfect for her as a single mother, was also forced out because of allergies.

“I was coughing and sneezing and under a doctor’s care for three months,” she says. “I have no other allergies, but the minute I’d open a bottle of the gel activator, my eyes would start to itch. The next day, one eye would be practically swollen shut. I tried four different products. I wore gloves and a face mask and had a fan blowing on me. Finally, the doctor told me I’d have to be on medication the rest of my life if I wanted to do nails, and that I’d probably develop bronchitis. It was really traumatic for me because I paid a lot for school and I loved doing nails. It was an incredible letdown.”

Betty Mangini of Newark, Del., was considering quitting when she filled out the questionnaire: today, she has left the business, too. While a back injury that was not job-related forced her out in the end, she says her hands had started to hurt, and that after four years she had developed carpel tunnel syndrome. Bonnie Heck of Palm Beach, Fla., says she wants to stay in the business and is receiving therapy for arm problems; in Alabama, Carmen Caine says she’s considering leaving because she developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Numerous others say it’s just too hard to make decent money According to one technician in Reno, Nev., “If it wasn’t for my boyfriend supporting me, I couldn’t make it.”

Jill Robertson, who has been on the fence in regards to leaving for the past four of her seven years in the industry, puts her problem bluntly. “I don’t have a life,” she says, “but we need the money. If my husband made more or I won the lottery, I’d quit.”

In an attempt to seize control over 12-hour days, she recently cut back to 8-hour days.

“A big chunk of my income went with the hours,” she says. “I was making $700-$l,000 a week; now I make $500-$600. So I went back to 12-hour Saturdays. I used to go the distance to accommodate clients; every time I’d try to get them to come in during my hours, I lost some. I took a vacation for the first time in years and lost five clients out of 100. Every time I try to set a standard for myself, the clients get mad. I am in more control now, but asserting yourself about hours is tough and you can’t do it when you’re building a clientele.”

While Robertson says she hasn’t raised her prices in four years, she rejects that as a solution, as do many others.

“Clients are leaving or cutting back because of the economy now,” she says. ‘They certainly won’t stand for a price increase when times are tough; nails are not an essential.”

So technicians continue to toil long hours and their personal lives suffer. Yet, they stay. Wrote one 18-year veteran, who indicated that she is not considering leaving the industry, “The money is not there and there are no benefits for the nail technician.”

Tie Right Stuff

It’s no coincidence that the top earners who responded to the survey all say it takes a certain personality type to persevere in a nail career Interestingly, none of the top four works in a major city, where competition is often so tough it inhibits high earnings. Janet Hakkinen, who says she makes $1,150 a week doing nails, has worked as a technician in Fraser, Mich., which is just four square miles, for 12 years. What’s her secret?

“I do what the clients want,” she says with a laugh. “Nails are a very personal thing and my clients are sales representatives and businesswomen whose hands are on display all day. I do the best I can for everyone. It definitely takes a certain personality type to be successful. You have to be down-to-earth and create a welcoming atmosphere. You must be enduring and have infinite patience. More importantly, be humble, open, and flexible. And, of course, you have to love people.”

Hakkinen’s advice for technicians who are having a tough time building a profitable business is to concentrate on their skills and not give up.

Like Hakkinen, Darla Giese of The Unique Touch in Romeoville, Ill., has built her business to $1,000 a week.

“I did it by getting clients to refer friends to me,” she says. “I gave them free services in return, such as a paraffin treatment, a manicure, or a free fill-in I worked 60-80 hours a week, but now that I own my own business I can take time off. I have a full-time salon manager and I work at the table most of the time on my own clients. I charge $12 for a manicure, $40-$45 for a full set of sculptured nails. You have to be patient and believe in what you are doing. I love what I do; it’s not just a job.”

As for the personality type most likely to make it, Giese’s description is similar to Hakkinen’s: patient, outgoing, open-minded, and someone who loves people. In Canton, Ohio, Woods finds it surprising that other technicians are having such trouble. You might be tempted to chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm, but it’s much more. As an independent contractor,’ Woods pays just $20 a week to rent space, which keeps her major expenses low, but it’s really her sales savvy that has made her business blossom.

“I used to be in sales, and as a nail technician you have to sell yourself,” she says. “I started working as a cashier when I was 16 years old and I’ve always worked with the public. To get started in nails, I’d advertise and run specials. You have to give complimentary services when you start out. Everyone loves something for free. I go out of my way to be helpful to clients.”

Woods works from morning to 8:00 or 9:00 at night, but leaves at 5:00 p.m on Tuesdays.

“I can set my own hours and pick my own products.” she adds. ‘The hairstylists in the salon recommend me to their clients; we work great together. While I do all the work in the salon, I would travel to someone’s home if they were handicapped or couldn’t come in. In two months, I’m going to open my own salon.”

For Woods, nails offers a career with excitement and an income potential that she felt she couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. At this point, she says she can’t imagine leaving the business.

Bonnie Heck, who has built a thriving business twice in two different states, exemplifies the successful nail technician. At 36, she’s been in the business for seven years and has succeeded by carving out a niche for herself. She makes about $800 a week doing nails and maintains control over her hours.

“I started out in New Jersey, when I was employed as a construction worker,” she says. “I either had to make a career change or a marriage change, so I made the career change. I researched schools to find which had the very best education and ended up picking the Artistic Institute in Fair Lawn, N J Then I started specializing in nail art. It took two to three months to book enough clients so that I could make money, and I did that by promoting my nail art. I’d do all the cashiers in nearby grocery stores and bank tellers. I went to every bank in town. When we moved to Florida, I did the same thing and it worked again. Pick people who are highly visible and give them services for free.”

Heck, who started out with some painting talent, now works in a retirement community, which some would think means limited expendable income. But her unique nail art attracts attention.

“Everything I do is hand-painted,” she says. “I get tourists who want tropical designs, and 90% of my clients get nail art. One woman wanted her championship dog on her nails and she brought the dog into the salon.”

While Heck used to over-stretch to accommodate clients’ time preferences, she drew the line at 5:30 a.m.

“They started to get abusive,” she notes. “Most of the time I work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., but I’ve cut back now from five to three days a week.”

Heck definitely intends to stay in the business and stresses that to make it, you have to “be caring and open, but know when to keep your mouth shut.”

“There are a lot of nail technicians in Florida,” she notes. “They won’t make a lot of money their first year. Schools should be more realistic in what they tell students. But if you put in the time, promote yourself, and give services to people who are seen all over the community, you will make money.”

Working Out The Bugs

It appears that it’s rarefy the people or the job itself that make technicians leave the business, but the unbalanced equation between a professional’s working hours and her income. When asked what they liked most, technicians ranked their clients first, the work itself and coworkers tied for second place, while “being my own boss” ranked third.

Retailing and developing add-on services will help technicians increase revenues; as for accommodating working clients in the early mornings and late evenings, there’s one solution that might provide relief. Have bag, will travel. The professional working woman is one of the most likely to pay for nail services, so why not go to her? It may not answer all your problems, or fill all your prime-time hours, but if you travel, you can charge more for the convenience. (Check your own state laws first. Many states will not license mobile manicurists.)

Several respondents also said the price of products is hurting them and that their supply costs are higher than those of hairstylists, who make more money for their services. The inequity aggravates many.

Says Barbara Warner, “In January, I spent $48 on liquid, $48 on powder, and $26.95 on primer. Some technicians don’t use cuticle oil, cleansers, or primers so that they save money. I try to use the best products to get good results.

“Hairstylists don’t have to pay for what they use at the backbar. A curling iron lasts for years, and you know how often you have to buy new brushes. Nail technicians always pay more.”

To this, manufacturers suggest being a wise shopper. Buy economy sizes whenever possible and create a simple bookkeeping system to hold your budget in check.

Independent contractors can get together, select a line, and purchase in bulk. Many manufacturers offer bulk prices on common items; if you’re going to use it eventually, why not buy now and save together?

Technicians who complained that product costs were too high also complained about salons that undercut them in pricing. As the saying goes, you can’t have it both ways. Those of us who were thrilled when the hand-held calculator dropped from $40 to $10 and who are just waiting for the cost of video phones to come down can’t expect pricing not to affect our own businesses. There has always been a market for high-cost goods and services and low-cost goods and services. Being competitive means carving out a niche, targeting clients who will pay for quality, and offering something above and beyond, such as excellent service. Survey after survey has shown that consumers will travel farther and pay more to patronize a business that “treats them better.” In a tough economy, there will be losses to value shoppers, but superior service is a great way to tough it out, as top-dollar-producing technicians have proven.


When asked if they agreed that nail technicians “have professional respect from their peers and/or the public,” an overwhelming majority said, “No.” When asked what they liked most and least about their jobs, respondents ranked respect the second least-liked aspect. Only job benefits were considered worse.

When asked what industry leaders could do to improve technicians’ status, one respondent wrote, “Industry leaders should make the public respect us.”

“Educate the public more, especially about what to do if you have any physical problems with nails,” wrote another.

One industry group, the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC), is doing something to stem the tide of negative images of nail care in the mainstream beauty press. It held a major press event in March of this year, to which it invited consumer beauty editors and introduced them to services that addressed nail health and specific nail problems.

But many in the industry think that respect has to come from the professionals themselves first. As the battle for consumers’ hearts and minds continues, technicians themselves are garnering respect by becoming more professional and more educated than ever. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they attend continuing education seminars and trade-shows; as one put it, “Respect is what you make it.”

Benefits -M.I.A.

The salon industry in general is known for its lack of benefits, and nowhere are they more “missing in action” than among nail technicians. Many survey respondents pleaded for affordable health insurance. For independent contractors, who often shop for private insurance, some relief may come if the cost of health insurance becomes completely tax deductible. The nation itself currently is wrestling with the “affordable insurance” problem, right along with technicians.

In the meantime, professional trade associations, such as the Nails Industry Association and the National Cosmetology Association, offer group rates on insurance. Additionally, the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) in Hurst, Texas, and the Beauty Industry Association in Atlanta, Ga. (which is comprised of independent contractors), offer group rates that vary from state to state.

Budgeting for insurance can be difficult, particularly for young beginners but if you break it down to a charge-per-client cost and set the money aside, you may become accustomed to the regular expense.

Still, for many, health insurance is sadly out of reach. While no respondent indicated he or she would leave the business because of a lack of benefits, it continues to hit a sour note in terms of measuring career satisfaction. The current solutions are in the hands of business owners more than with independents. Just a few suggestions for owners: Take a dollar off the top of each ticket to offer benefits, ask your employees to vote on the benefits they want most and what they’re willing to do to have them, and work toward offering them as a future goal.

It would be an understatement to say that nail technicians work hard for the money. Long hours, maxed out incomes, neglected families, and job-related health problems, combined with a profession that rarely comes with health insurance, lead the way to the exit door.

Love of the job and the creativity it offers, love of people, and the possibility of being your own boss keep technicians’ eyes on the prize. For those who persevere—particularly beyond those first few years of building a business — the rewards are well worth the effort. If a technician can stand out among the competition, offer extra services, and prescribe additional re­tail, she can potentially make more money, shave her hours, and spend more time with family and on personal pursuits. Without question, it takes a special kind of person to make it as a nail technician. Give yourself respect for that.

A Few of Our Favorite Comments

Every respondent to the recent NAILS survey on job satisfaction got the opportunity to sound off, and sound off they did. Here are just a few of the comments, in the respondents’ own words, that caught our eye:

“Manufacturers should educate their reps better. I provide customer service all day, every day, and would like to see them do the same.”

“The public seems to be under the impression that anyone can do nails. So they go to school, pass the board, and proceed to represent themselves as knowledgeable professionals. They create disgusting blobs on the client’s fingertips and call them nails.”

“Doing nails has made my life complete.”

“I want more nails- only shows.”

“If I knew anything the industry leaders could do to improve our status, I’d be doing it myself.”

“I see too many articles on the hazards of artificial nails and would like to see the industry work at getting more, positive publicity.”

“There should be more stringent training requirements.”

“Schools should require more hours.”

“Stop selling nail products to the public.”

“People leave legal salons to work at salons that pay off the books.”

“I’d work full-time if the industry offered benefits.”

“Stop making false claims (about products).” 

If You Have Left The Nail Business Or Have Considered Leaving Why?

“I left to return to a former career and to raise a family.”

“The slow times in the nail business are discouraging; the expense of doing business is too high; there’s no professional respect.”

“The money is inconsistent, and I’m not able to pay my bills.”

“It’s too tough juggling my family life and my career with the hours I have to work.”

“I want to work part-time, but it’s not easy to do this business part-time.”

“I’m retiring.”

“I’m impatient, and this business takes patience.”

“I need to earn more money and I am going to change fields.”

“I don’t like the salon I work in.”

“I’m going to start my own salon.”

“I need better hours so I have more time with my family, and I need benefits for my family.” “The stress can just be too much sometimes.”

“This job is too stressful and time-consuming.”

“I worry about the health risks. I think I may be developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”

“I was getting back problems.”

“The economy has been so bad that my business has really dropped off in the last few years.

Job Satisfaction Among Nail Professionals

We asked nail technicians to rank what they liked most and least about their jobs. A ranking of 1 meant they liked that aspect most, a 7 indicated a least-liked factor. The following figures represent the average scores of our respondents.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? A score of 1 or 2 indicates agreement, a B indicates neither agreement nor disagreement, and a 4 or 5 indicates disagreement with the statements. The numbers in the columns indicate the percentage of respondents selecting that number.


Average Score






Nail techs are well-paid







Respect from public/peers







Allows me to be creative







More education/more money







Physically exhausting







Psychologically stressful







A career, not a job








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