Donald Trump may have given apprenticeship some glamour, but aspiring nail techs have been completing these hands-on training programs for years pre-dating the hit show “The Apprentice”. (And instead of hearing “you’re fired,” nail tech apprentices hear “you’re licensed!”) Before you sign up for an apprenticeship, take on an apprentice at your salon, or set out to get your state’s laws changed on the subject, here’s what you need to know.
The Apprentice. Illustration by Nathalie Beauvois
Did you know that enrolling in beauty school isn’t the only option for becoming a licensed nail tech? In about a quarter of U.S. states, apprenticeship — where an aspiring nail tech learns one-on-one from a licensed tech — is a recognized way to qualify to take the state board exam, earn a license, and ultimately work as a licensed tech yourself.
There are some clear advantages to apprenticeship — like getting the extra hands-on experience — but before you rush off to find a salon where you can apprentice (or take on an apprentice to pass down your extensive nail knowledge), we’ll walk you through some of the pros and cons of this alternative option.
Want to Go the Apprenticeship Route?
The first step is to find out if your state recognizes apprenticeship as a path to licensure (see the above map, “Is Apprenticeship an Option in My State?”). If so, you’ll just need to check with your state board for what its specific requirements are, then find a salon where you can apprentice. (We recommend starting by researching the salon where you most frequently get your nail services done, plus checking in with salons that are actively hiring nail techs.) If not, then you’ll need to do some trailblazing yourself, which we offer guidance for in a following section.
If you’ve been putting off enrolling in beauty school due to not having the tuition money, you’re not alone. Affordability is a huge benefit to apprentice programs versus school enrollment. In Maryland, “the apprenticeship program was established to allow individuals who were not able to afford to go to an approved school an option to qualify to take the exam,” says Summar Goodman, deputy director of communications in the Office of the Secretary, Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Maryland currently has 214 active apprentice nail techs.
Like all aspects of apprenticeship, the laws are made at the state level and states vary in apprenticeship costs, but in many states, you can actually be paid while working as an apprentice — a far cry from spending money with a school.
Hands-on experience interacting with clients and other working beauty professionals is another huge advantage, especially as many see real-world training as lacking in today’s nail programs. “You are in a salon every day. You are seeing and dealing with real-world situations,” says Tricia Baldwin, a nail tech at Studio Salons in West Jordan, Utah, who apprenticed for her license. “The transition from an apprenticeship to a licensed tech is very easy. Usually you have a pretty good clientele already built.”
In most cases, an apprentice is allowed to perform nail services on clients, sometimes with a stipulation that a certain amount of bookwork has to be completed first (similar to at a beauty school) and that the client is informed that an apprentice is doing the work.
The relationships you form with the nail tech who apprentices you and her co-workers can help your career further down the road. Nail tech Vicki Jensen of Nails by Vicki in Contempo Salon & Spa in Ann Arbor, Mich., worked with several of the techs who mentored her during her apprenticeship for almost a decade. “I greatly appreciate their generosity in taking me under their wing. They are the reason I become an educator for Dashing Diva. I wanted to give back to the industry that I love so much and help others as they had done for me,” Jensen says.
Tricia Baldwin was so pleased with her nail apprenticeship that she later went on to complete a hair apprenticeship and now teaches for Young Nails, where she passes her knowledge on to the next generation of nail techs.
If you are time-pressed to get into the world as a working nail tech, then apprenticeship probably isn’t for you. In most states that allow apprenticeship, the number of required hours for apprenticeship is double those for school enrollment. For instance, Georgia requires 525 school hours versus 1,050 apprenticeship hours. Hawaii requires double its 350 school hours to do an apprenticeship (700 apprenticeship hours). Delaware requires 600 apprenticeship hours versus 300 school hours. Theresa Newman, an administrative specialist with the Delaware Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, says that the extra hours are to “obtain the experience. When working in school, it’s books and hands-on. When doing an apprenticeship, the majority is hands-on. A regular nail tech or cosmetologist is teaching you, not a licensed instructor.” Newman says that from January 2012 to January 2013, the state of Delaware granted 50 apprenticeship licenses for nails.
In Maryland, the requirements are for 250 school hours or eight months of apprenticeship. Goodman says, “The two programs are separate and apart and cannot be compared as to length of time to completion. The schools requiring a number of hours of class time is in a more structured atmosphere such as a classroom setting. The apprentice, however, must develop her training in a salon, which may not be as conducive of a learning environment as a classroom setting. The board recognized the differences and at that time decided that the required amount of hours would sufficiently prepare an individual training as an apprentice for the exam.”
Another negative, depending on the style of salon you choose, is that you may get shortchanged on the theory part of your education. In most states, the person you apprentice under is responsible for teaching you both the hands-on and the theory you would have gotten in school. Baldwin says, “At schools they focus on the test. I feel I learned and teach more day-to-day style. At the end of my apprenticeship I had to study hard for the test.”
In Virginia, you do have to enroll in a formal theory class. Jen Styers, an apprentice at Spa on the Boulevard in Virginia Beach, Va., says she was able to complete this class through a technical college as an at-home study program for $325, including the textbooks. “As I knew absolutely nothing about the salon environment, nail field, techniques or procedures before my apprenticeship, the theory class is an excellent and essential tool that is needed combined with hands-on training,” Styers says.
Also, don’t expect much, if any, supervision from the state. You will need to ensure you have picked a salon to apprentice in that is capable of teaching you what you need to know to get your license. Supervision also varies state by state. Newman of Delaware says, “We do random visits. One of our investigators from the division makes sure licensure is in place with all the shops. We don’t necessarily check for books and things of that nature. We make sure the apprentice is working under a licensed cosmetologist or tech.”
In Maryland, as of February 2012, both the apprentice applicant and her sponsor attend a mandatory apprentice orientation prior to the issuance of the apprentice license. This “strengthens the understanding and awareness of the program and ensures future compliance,” Goodman says.
If you’re the type of person who takes initiative and wants to gain all of the experience you can, then this may be the ideal situation for you. “If you are a dedicated self-starter I think an apprenticeship is a great option. I feel it was my best choice,” Baldwin says.
Next page: Want an apprentice in your salon?