Have you ever dreamed of leaving the industry to get a “real job”? Techs who have tried it share their stories of how they came to realize their first love is their true love. They also share the challenges they encountered when they returned after an absence.
Illustration by Yuiko Sugino
“In 1998, I had my third child and decided to quit doing nails to be home with the kids,” says Adrienne Cheatham, a nail tech from Sidney, Neb. “I left the nail industry and began to teach preschoolers.” Though Cheatham enjoyed teaching, she says she missed the creativity of doing nails. In 2008, she and her husband purchased a building with a salon attached to it. With her husband’s encouragement, she pursued her dream of doing nails again. “It’s been so much more rewarding than my first career in nails,” says Cheatham.
The story is repeated over and over as techs who left the industry find themselves drawn back. “When the economy turned, the spa where I had worked for seven years closed,” says Lauren Parks, a nail tech living at the time in North Carolina. “I decided it was time to look for a more secure career with a guaranteed salary and benefits.” Parks moved back to her hometown of Danville, Va., and took a job as a dental assistant. Within a couple of years, she realized nothing is guaranteed. She left the “security” of the dental office and returned to doing nails. “No one is looking out for your future except you,” says Parks. “Even though I had to start fresh with no clientele, I’m so happy to be back.”
Nashville’s Melissa Bradford returned to the industry after a break of nearly five years to find nails had become an accessory.
Though it’s familiar territory, many techs noticed changes when they returned to the industry. Drawing on past experience and the creativity characteristic of nail techs, they re-forged a successful career in the middle of a troubled economy. Their stories can guide — and inspire — techs who want to get back to their one true love.
“I took a break for almost 20 years,” says Melissa Olson, a nail tech in Homestead, Fla. “I had to go back, take classes, get licensed, and re-learn the industry. In a lot of ways, it was like I’d never been in the industry at all.” Olson sees a lot of changes since her early years. In addition to licensing requirements, the standards of sanitation have noticeably improved. “I think the focus on sanitation is great,” says Olson. “Plus, there is an ongoing attempt to be mindful of the exposure for the nail tech. The products help us work faster and be more efficient, but they also minimize the effect on our health and the health of our clients.”
“When I was in school in 2001, I didn’t learn how to do gels,” says Janice Luper, a nail tech from Tehachapi, Calif.
Many techs spoke about the amount of products available compared to the past. “I remember when I started, wholesalers had one or two brands of acrylic,” says Kelly Saddleton, a nail tech in Thorpe St. Andrew, Norwich, U.K. The industry has seen not only an increase in product, but also in the number of salons. “There seem to be salons and mobile technicians popping up all over the place,” says Saddleton. With the explosion, salons have become a “third place,” a destination spot for girlfriends and parties, or an affordable escape for someone who wants to unplug and be alone. Instead of being purely maintenance, the appointment has become part of the fabric of clients’ social lives.
The nail community — networking, trade shows, blogs, social media, trade magazines — has become vibrant and interactive. “The industry is full of opportunities in many different areas instead of being limited to sitting at a table doing nails all day every day,” says Olson.
After a break of almost 20 years, Melissa Olson had to completely re-learn the industry.
The new industry gives techs unprecedented products, tools, support, and growth opportunities. Instead of being the overlooked, add-on sector of the larger beauty industry, the nail industry has developed its own personality and identity.
The type of services clients expect has changed. Techs who enter the industry after a long absence have found the need to develop skills to meet the demand. “When I was in school in 2001, I didn’t learn how to do gels,” says Janice Luper, a nail tech from Tehachapi, Calif. “I remember the teacher told us if we could polish, we could do gels. We never even read those pages in the book!”
Lynsey Young moved in with her grandmother to reduce expenses while building a clientele.
“Ten years ago, women were very basic about their nail styles,” says Melissa Bradford, a tech in Nashville, Tenn., who returned after a break of nearly five years. “Now, our nails are accessories to reflect our personalities just like a purse, necklace, or hair color.”
Regardless of how long you’ve been out of the industry, you will surely need to learn a new skill to be successful when you return. (In truth, techs who never leave the industry need to continue learning new skills.) Many options exist of how to learn, from asking for help from more experienced techs to trade shows, networking events, attending classes, and manufacturers’ videos. “I ordered books from Milady, read them page-by-page, and did all the worksheets,” says Luper. In addition, she had the added advantage of one-on-one help: Her cousin, Susan Loggins, spent five days teaching her how to apply gel nails.
Lauren Parks worked briefly as a dental assistant because she felt it was a more secure career.
Along with all the technical skills returning techs may need to acquire, another important skill can ease the transition: the ability to use social media to announce and promote yourself. “I found that social media (mainly Facebook) was the best source of advertisement for us,” says Lynsey Young, a nail tech from Maryville, Tenn., who helps with the marketing responsibilities of the salon. Start by creating a business page, ask your friends to “like” the page, and immediately start educating clients and promoting yourself through this free marketing tool. Post pictures of yourself, your nails, your salon, salon events, etc., so people understand your passion and excitement.