Nail technicians sound off about their school experiences and coment on what needs to be done to improve nail care education.
The common denominator among all nail technicians — besides a love of nails and innate people skills — seems to be dissatisfaction with their own schooling. Talk to any nail technician and before long the subject turns to the state of nail care education in the United States. Even the most recalcitrant novice nail technician will usually admit that her school experience left her unready to practice the art of nails.
Somehow, though, nail professionals are getting trained and are learning the finer points of nail technology. They are opening salons and running profitable businesses. We assembled a group of nail technicians at a recent trade-show and asked them to talk about nail education. We had nail technicians from Hawaii, Oregon, Ohio, Nevada, California, New Hampshire, Idaho, and Colorado; some who had been in the business less than a year, some as many as 10 years. We even had a school instructor who had led the movement to change cosmetology school legislation in her state. What follows are their comments, opinions, and calls to action. We agreed not to use their full names, and they agreed to be as forthright and honest as possible in talking to us.
Cyndy Drummey, NAILS editor: Let’s talk about your individual school experiences. What was nail school like when you went?
Nadine: I live in a rural area and I had to drive 40 miles to get to school. All the teachers did hair only. I was in school for 350 hours and I learned nothing. School was just trial and error, and there was no other place to learn nails in this small community.
Drummey: What do you mean you learned “nothing”?
Nadine: They taught us hair! I learned how to cut hair!
Cheryl: I just graduated and got my license in April. I went to night school. Now, they do use a good textbook, and they touch on everything and explain some things. But the school has to meet certain requirements to get state qualification and funding, so they concentrate on teaching you just the basics so you can pass the board. The test is a multiple-choice test. Anyone with half a brain can pass it, but there is no practical exam. How can they make sure you can do nails if they don’t even require you do nails for the test?
Kelley: I think there should be standardized criteria for all schools. At my school we got a list of what would be on the test. We learned how to do nails out of a book so we learned to do book-quality nails, not salon-quality nails. We had to practice on our own.
They leave it up to you to decide when you’re ready to be tested. During class, when you feel you’ve done salon-quality work, you raise your hand and the instructor checks your nails and signs you off on a card. Anybody could get their card signed off. Then when you take the exam it’s mostly on safety and sanitation, not on any practical aspect.
Diane (instructor): I think schools need to up their standards. They’re in sync with the board, but that’s not enough. At our school, we required more than what the board tested on. We had a mock final so students could practice, and we required that they score a higher percentage than the board requires.
Kelley: I was terrified of having to work on a real client when I was in school. I didn’t think I could sit across from a client and ask her to pay me $30 for a set of nails. I decided to get practice on my own: I worked on the women in my husband’s office for free. I spent every Saturday for six months doing nails until I built up my confidence. I was so seared. I even postponed my own graduation until I felt I deserved my license. I wanted to feel that I had the right to ask to be paid.
Cheryl: Instructors have no concept of salon quality. They’re not up on trends and styles, either. You know what they say: Those that can do, those that can’t teach.
Diane: When I was teaching I also worked in my own salon. I saw the need for better teachers when I worked in the salon because it was so hard to find good manicurists. Our school strongly recommended that we work outside the school.
Linda: One of the main problems at school is that you don’t have clients to work on. Despite the fact that we had plenty of technicians and the price was cheap, we had the same clients week after week, and they didn’t care about quality.
Tammy: I guess I’m the only one who had a good experience. We had 500 hours and we had great seminars. Our school invited speakers, such as Michael Cole, to come in and do business classes. We learned about developing a good customer-relations attitude.
Diane: At our school, we required that students find their own models who would come back even two weeks for maintenance. They each had to find five models, one for each service. We think it’s better to work on the same model so you can see how well your work holds up.
Some schools look to the student services as a way to make money, but we found that if the students brought in their own models, they ended up getting better training.
When the students were doing the nails, they had to work on the practice finger; then the instructor would OK it and let them work on another student; then finally they could work on models. Everyone got lots of teacher attention.
Sandra: School almost turned me off to nails forever. We had many students who did the worst nails, but fortunately I learned how to make a nail look real.
Robin: We had to practice all day by ourselves, and no one ever checked on us. My first set of nails took five hours, and they were so thick! When I got out of school I scheduled three hours per set.
Drummey: You’re all successful nail technicians and industry professionals now. How did you get to the point you are at today?
Sandra: When I graduated from cosmetology school, I didn’t even know you could specialize in nails. I heard of a salon that needed a nail technician, so I decided to try it. The salon owner worked with me and gave me confidence. She believed in me. I made it because of her.
Tammy: During the last couple of weeks of school we went to salons that we’re willing to work with our school and we started working with the practicing nail techs. We learned a lot by seeing how things were done in a salon.
Diane: At our school we took field trips to other salons so students could see how nails fit in, how everyone worked together in an actual salon. We found some salons that allowed new technicians to do something like an apprenticeship.
No matter what field you’re in, you have to do some on-the-job training. It actually takes about a year. You need time to work up to working on clients. You don’t graduate from school and suddenly become a great nail tech. You need time. You need to know that you’re on course. I tell students to take the time in the beginning and develop their skills.
Linda: Everyone knows that there; is a lack of quality education, so salon owners have to make the time to train, even though they’re busy and doing nails themselves.
Drummey: What needs to be done to improve nail education in the United States? What suggestions would you make for a national standard?
Robin: Schools should stop focusing on the state board exam and start focusing on how to do nails.
Nadine: Why can’t every state have the same educational requirements? I train my own clients. I show them how to tell whether they’re getting good nails. They aren’t going to leave you if you educate them. It sells you.
Sandra: All schools should require at least 500 hours, and continuing education has to be mandatory. Schools should use a standardized training program and cover every area in detail.
Linda: Schools need to focus on what’s happening in the salon.
Cheryl: I think 500 hours is good, but it has to be 500 quality hours of education. If you have a hairdresser teaching nails for 500 hours, it’s a waste of time.
Linda: Instructors have to have actual experience doing nails and they have to pay more attention to each student.
Diane: It would be great if all instructors did nails, but it is difficult to balance salon work and teaching. Teaching is an art just like doing nails is. Instructors need to be well-balanced in their own experience and understand all product applications. Schools also need to work with good distributors and manufacturers. I think they need to pick a single product and work with companies that support the schools. Schools should encourage students to continue after school with manufacturer-specific education. The state board must keep pace. In our state, we weren’t allowed to teach pedicures in schools, but they were being offered in the salons.
Sandra: I’d like to see more advanced education for techs who have been doing nails a long time. I’ve been doing nails 10 years, and I need help on things like problem clients and how to tell what’s wrong with a client’s nails. Business classes are also helpful — like how to prevent bounced checks.
Robin: Schools need to focus on all the other skills you need to be successful in this business: You need to know about business, psychology, taxes, how to decide whether you want to be a booth renter or an employee. Not everyone is cut out to be in business for herself.
Linda: Schools need to go into more depth. They touch on a lot of things, but you need to know more. You learn how to book an appointment, but what happens after that?
Kelley: I think it requires a commitment on all our parts. We each have to commit to do our part to change our industry. Each individual needs to make the commitment so that together we can change the industry. Nail technicians should focus on this and maybe even be willing to pay higher licensing fees so schools can be improved. We’d be willing to pay to improve our image in the public eye.
Nail Professionals Recommend Reform
Our focus group participants had complaints about their education, but they also had suggestions for improving nail care education in general. These are their key recommendations for reform.
1. Develop a national curriculum for nail care education in the United States that requires all states to teach and test on the same topics.
2. Impose a national standard for licensing. Our participants feel that a nail technician should be trained to practice in every state of the country.
3. Increase the hourly educational requirement to 500 hours.
4. Update nail care curricula so that they are more in sync with what is being practiced in today’s salons.
5. Set mandatory minimums for continuing education. These professionals say that nail technology and the salon world are constantly changing and that nail technicians should be required to continue their own education to keep up.
6. Require nail school instructors to have experience in the field doing nails.
7. Include manufacturers and distributors in the mix of educational resources for schools. Our focus group participants feel that manufacturers and distributors are in touch with what’s going on in the salons and with product technology — knowledge that is very valuable to the learning technician.
8. Include more business classes in the curriculum. Nail technicians want to learn about finances, psychology, and other critical business skills so that they will become well-rounded professionals.