Making the Grade: Elevating Nail Schools

All too often, cosmetology schools in the U.S. aren’t putting their best foot forward when it comes to educating future nail technicians. For nail schools to get all As when it comes to training students for the real salon world, we need more dedicated nail instructors, increased hours, and a commitment to more than just the state board exam.

Silk and linen wraps are only done at 31% of nail salons (according to NAILS’ 2011-2012 Big Book), yet a wrap practical appears on many state board exams. This is in contrast to nail art, which is done at 89% of nail salons, and brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, but which are generally not tested on state board exams and frequently not covered in nail schools.
<p>Silk and linen wraps are only done at 31% of nail salons (according to NAILS&rsquo; 2011-2012 Big Book), yet a wrap practical appears on many state board exams. This is in contrast to nail art, which is done at 89% of nail salons, and brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, but which are generally not tested on state board exams and frequently not covered in nail schools.</p>


Teaching can be a thankless job, and while we may say we appreciate our teachers in theory, in reality, there are several major obstacles preventing nail teachers and nail schools as a whole from moving forward.

Funding is one such hurdle. Many state programs that help pay for other postsecondary degrees, such as nursing or truck driving, do not pay for nail school, invoking such bizarre arguments as the industry is not high growth, high demand, or high wage (this despite the fact that the 2012 projected nail market size is $7.3 billion, according to NAILS’ 2011-2012 Big Book, up from $6.6 billion in 2011 and $6.2 billion in 2010, and that a nail tech graduate is pretty much guaranteed a job) or with implications that being a nail tech is not a true profession.

Required hours are sometimes to blame for the lack of funding. “There is no financial aid for manicuring students because of the amount of hours required to complete the course. If no one signs up, I don’t have a class and am on unemployment until there is a class,” says Ann-Marie Reaves, a manicuring instructor at Henries School of Hair Design in Ashby, Mass.

With some instructors simply teaching to the test, the disparity between what’s covered on the state board exam, versus what’s needed in the real world, also causes problems in the classroom. New technologies such as brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, are commonly not covered, but older technologies such as wraps, which are done at only 31% of nail salons, are. King says, “In our state our students are required to do one odorless acrylic sculpture and one tip overlay with a wrap. Most of the schools, salons, and product lines are low-odor, not odorless, so why not test with what they practice with?  Also the wrap is not as popular, I’m sure somewhere in America it is, but not generally, so again why test on the one thing they are probably not going to do in the salon?”

In addition, the application method expected on the exam sometimes differs from the application method preferred in real salons. “I teach students the state board way, then I teach them the ‘make-money way,’” Johnson says. For instance, Johnson says, the state board way has nail techs apply the wrap directly to the nail tip, then cover the entire nail including the tip with the wrap. Then the tech just applies two coats of resin. “The ‘make-money way’ is to apply two coats of resin, then apply the tip, followed by two coats of resin, the wrap, then two more coats of resin, followed by a coat of gel. It is a stronger application that protects the entire nail plate from the product, makes a prettier nail, and gives you more satisfied clients.”

Many state board tests tend to focus on sanitation and safety practices (closing product lids, storing tools properly, disinfecting implements), as opposed to proper application technique and form. From a public health standpoint, sanitation is the more important concern; however, not testing on proper form means many students are clueless on how to apply an acrylic nail to a client’s satisfaction when they get into the real world, especially if their teacher’s only goal was to teach them to pass the state board exam.

Christie Tran, president of the California State Board of Barbering & Cosmetology (BBC) and a licensed nail tech, says the state board’s main focus is to ensure the licensee has the skills and knowledge to perform safely on consumers. “Therefore,” Tran says, “the licensing exam is meant to test that minimum level of competency across a general scope of practice.  The goal of our exam is not necessarily to keep up with all industry trends and technological advances, but to make sure all licensees understand the basics to keep their clients safe.” Tran adds that is costly to the BBC and cumbersome for licensees each time it alters the regulated scope of practice or various mandated protocols, “so we are hesitant to alter our regulations unless something new becomes widely utilized and incorrectly applied to consumers.” The BBC’s 20 field inspectors and four members who are industry appointees keep the BBC up with industry evolutions and product and equipment advances as relevant, she says.

Inconsistency from state to state on hours required to sit for the test and what is tested and what’s not is another obstacle. Alabama requires the most hours at 750, while Alaska requires the least at 12 (and Connecticut doesn’t even require licensing to do manicures and pedicures). Some states approve apprenticeships and many don’t.

In recent years, a number of states have standardized their exams by using a national test created by the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC). As of 2011, there are 29 states that use the NIC written exam in nail technology and 21 that use the NIC practical. A national test is likely a step in the right direction, though schools, graduates, and salon owners do voice concerns about which topics should be covered on the test and if the test is challenging enough to techs who hope to immediately begin servicing clients.

Mary Manna, a member of the NIC’s National Examination Committee and a licensed nail tech, says the NIC does listen to and regularly address those concerns. “We update our exams every five years to make them current. We’ve just finished the five-year job analysis on esthetics, which included a booth at a major beauty show, from where we reached out to licensed professionals. We asked them to go through a survey, which listed all of the procedures that could possibly be covered in an exam and had them rate the procedures in order of importance,” Manna says. “So it really is licensed professionals and the industry itself that tells us what we should be testing entry-level graduates on.” The next five-year job analysis on nails and the subsequent exam updates is scheduled to start in 2013.

A final obstacle to teachers is that non-traditional students are frequently attracted to nail schools, allured by a career that gives them the opportunity to create a flexible schedule or to pursue a lifelong passion stoked by drugstore nail polish as a child. That said, these students may be older and have other priorities and commitments, such as children and full-time employment. Indeed, a recent web poll found that 44% of licensed nail techs started their nail education when they were age 25 or older.

Next page: Elevating Schools

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A base coat is a colorless substance applied to the natural nail before the application of colored polish; base coat promotes polish adhesion and...
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