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.

 “Your education is just as important as a Harvard education, because you, as beauty professionals, are critical to helping other people feel good about themselves,” said Frank Schoeneman, chairman and CEO of Empire Education Group at the school’s eighth annual Future Professionals Expo.
<p>&nbsp;&ldquo;Your education is just as important as a Harvard education, because you, as beauty professionals, are critical to helping other people feel good about themselves,&rdquo; said Frank Schoeneman, chairman and CEO of Empire Education Group at the school&rsquo;s eighth annual Future Professionals Expo.</p>

1. Have a dedicated nail instructor.  Employ instructors who have worked as nail techs and who are passionate about nails specifically. “Forcing the cosmetology instructor to teach the nail curriculum when they do not have the knowledge or desire is detrimental to the school’s reputation and program,” Zanettini says. “I believe that an instructor can make or break a school’s program.” Schools should also require that instructors continue to train and update in technique and along with changes in innovation, Zanettini posits.

It’s also generally good practice to hire instructors who are also educators for a specific nail product line, as it usually means they are constantly being trained, are up to date on trends, are well networked, and attend major beauty shows.

2. Offer support to the nail instructor. We have all seen day spas in which the nail services felt like an afterthought, with no marketing to speak of and no technical or networking help. Sadly, this same problem happens in beauty schools, in which cosmetology or esthetics instructors get preferential treatment over manicuring instructors. Make sure nail instructors are afforded continuing education opportunities, have well laid-out classrooms and prep areas, and promote their services at the school’s salon. Essentially whatever support you offer to the other program instructors should be offered to the manicuring instructors as well.

3. Teach beyond the state board to real-world strategies, including money-making lessons. So many new nail technologies and trends have appeared in recent years, and they must be added to curricula. The list includes brush-on gel-polish, full-coverage nail coatings like Minx, waterless pedicures, stamping nail art, water marbleizing, 3-D gel and acrylic art, magnetic polish, and a variety of polish textures from matte to crackle. “I’ve tweaked the curriculum to reflect new techniques/trends and of course the additional safety measures involved with new techniques,” King says. “I think it’s important to have more salon style classes/training so everyone across the board can value this career,” she continues. “Too many new nail techs sell themselves short and work for very little money.”

Johnson encourages her students to bring in YouTube videos of aspirational nail designs. After completing the official hands-on lesson of the day, Johnson allows for “play time” where they try to recreate the design from the video. “Most of the time I know how to do what the student found on YouTube or I’ll figure it out. Then it becomes a class for me and for them. My students know once they complete their assignment it’s play time. Plus it keeps my class from getting boring.”

Once students gain confidence in technical skills, it’s time to move on to business building. This includes a basic bookkeeping class. If none of the current nail instructors have worked in a salon recently, then bring in a guest speaker, such as a reputable salon owner, to give this lecture, suggests Lenhart.

4. Increase nail programs nationally to at least 600 hours. It’s near impossible to add things to the curriculum such as full-coverage nail coatings or bookkeeping if the course is only 100 hours. In the U.S., only 10 states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington  — require 600 or more hours of school to get licensed, with the rest all requiring less.

There is no magic number of hours that a program needs to be successful, but 600 is a good benchmark because it’s generally the bare minimum to be considered for certain types of national and state funding.

King suggests, “Require more extensive commitments from the students and staff. If the state requires less hours, then offer a grad program or an advanced techniques seminar.”

At Royal Beauty School, students enrolled in the nail program learn 3-D nail art and even participate in in-house competitions to improve their skills. This is the winning design from the school’s Fourth of July Nail Art Competition.
<p>At Royal Beauty School, students enrolled in the nail program learn 3-D nail art and even participate in in-house competitions to improve their skills. This is the winning design from the school&rsquo;s Fourth of July Nail Art Competition.</p>

5. Offer student competitions. Vanessa Sifuentes, a June 2012 graduate of Beyond 21st Century Academy, Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said school lived up to her expectations because “it gave me the experience of entering in student competitions along with in-house school competitions that help prepare each student in building up skills and speed.”

Empire Education Group’s Future Professionals Expo is the largest student competition and tradeshow in the beauty industry. “We often hear feedback after the show from vendors who were thrilled with the students, their professionalism, and their eagerness to learn new tips and techniques,” says Angela Watson, director, public and media relations for Empire. “Fortunately, the biggest challenge for us is not participation, rather accommodation. As you can imagine, getting 2,000 students to Hershey, Pa., for the weekend is quite an undertaking.” The school keeps the competition fresh by adding a new category almost every year that speaks to industry trends. For the 2012 show, the school added “Styling for the Red Carpet.”

For schools that can’t handle the logistical challenge of an in-house competition, another option is to take students to a competition organized by another group. At the Barristar Student Forum in Anaheim, the Long Beach Hairdressers Guild runs hair, nail, and make-up competitions just for students. Barry says, “For students, it is really valuable. The prize is the journey not the destination.” He says they purposely do real-life-style competitions (not fantasy nails, make-up, or hairstyles), so students get useful experience. “We give lots of trophies away, including to the teachers who helped them,” Barry says.

6. Offer free continuing education classes for the lifetime of the professionals’ career. Color My Nails School of Nail Technology in Midvale, Utah, offers continuing education to its alumni. Owner Jamie Comstock explains, “I think it’s important to do continuing education. I invite current students and alumni. Let’s say we’re doing nail art tomorrow. All of my past students know that they can come in for free to take a refresher course. We figure those alumni will refer us more people.” She adds that for students who postpone taking their state board exam, it’s also a great way for them to get a refresher.

Also provide your students with lists of outside continuing education classes they can take, whether your state requires it or not (only 13 do), and a list of places where they can find this information in the future. “It seems that nail professionals are not as quick to invest in the future of their career, such as hairstylists,” says CND’s Zanettini. “CND is changing this thought pattern with all of our Master Certification Classes and online consumer referral programs.”

7. Update the kit to include the newest technologies and real-world quality products. The kit should include products like colored acrylics, gel-polish, hard gels, embellishments, and quality brands that the students can continue to use on their first job. If you’re concerned that upping the quantity and quality of products in the kit will raise the cost of tuition, then just think about it being an up-front cost, instead of a cost several months down the road when the student spends her own money to buy better polish, base coat, nippers, clippers, etc., anyway.

Reaves says, “I purchase sample kits with my own money, and I ask for free products from manufacturers so my students will know there is more than just the product line they have in their kits. To get free samples, I call, get samples at networking events, beauty shows, send e-mails, and I will beg if I have too!” Reaves also gives students a list of all the manufacturers and their websites so students can also go online themselves and search for samples.

8. Use modern technology to students’ advantage. Johnson is excited because the school she works for is getting ready to launch a YouTube channel. She sees this as a great opportunity both for recruitment and for students who miss a lecture to easily make it up. In addition to YouTube, schools should have presences on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to establish connections with potential students before enrollment, to assist them during school, and after graduation to help with job placement.

9. Enforce stringent standards for applicants to ensure they are ready and willing to learn nails. Harvard Law School doesn’t let in just anyone, and neither should nail schools. Require a real application that includes questions about applicants’ motivation and have them take a test to show their knowledge and interest. We need to ensure that entering students are enthusiastic about learning, responsible enough to repay their loans, and will contribute to the field once they’ve graduated. Be frank with students during orientation, and let the uncommitted ones go for now, to potentially come back when they are truly ready.

To reform our nail schools, we need commitments from everyone — the schools themselves, of course, but also the students, nail manufacturers, licensed nail techs, state boards, salon owners, and federal and state-level governments. But these commitments should be easy for those of us who truly love the nail industry as both a career and a passion.

Or, as Barristar’s Barry says, “We have a great industry with great people who are smart and talented and caring. Go to beauty school. Go to nail school. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s so rewarding.

Next page: How to Find a Great Nail School, plus sign up for the Nail School News e-newsletter

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