The Apprentice. Illustration by Nathalie Beauvois

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.

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?


Beyond Nails owner Sandi Tomlinson (right) still employs Kristie Stephens, her first apprentice from eight years ago.

Beyond Nails owner Sandi Tomlinson (right) still employs Kristie Stephens, her first apprentice from eight years ago.

Licensed and Want to Train Someone Else?

Salon owner Sandi Tomlinson started taking on apprentices out of desperation. “I couldn’t find any licensed nail techs,” says the owner of Beyond Nails in Livonia, Mich. “I once sent a letter to 12 of the beauty schools in my area, telling them to send promising graduating nail students my way. Ten of the 12 letters came back undelivered because the schools were closed.”

Though it may have started out of necessity, her apprentice program has since blossomed into a way to train the next generation in the correct way of doing nails and has (with a few exceptions) overwhelmingly been a positive experience for Tomlinson herself. She’s taught seven apprentices in the last 10 years and actively recruits for more when one completes the program. Her first apprentice from eight years ago still works at the salon today.

In most states that allow apprenticeship, to take on an apprentice the only requirements are that you are licensed yourself and that you and/or the apprentice file the appropriate paperwork with the state.

Training an apprentice is a great way to cultivate the next generation of nail techs, stop them from developing bad habits before they start, and frequently gets you a no-brainer new hire.

In the salon, an apprentice can also assist you with day-to-day tasks. Tomlinson typically starts them off by letting them remove polish, take off gel-polish with wraps, and fill up pedicure spas. After they are more experienced, Tomlinson lets them do entire services, choosing to give apprentices long-time clients versus (impressionable) new clients and sometimes promotes in her salon’s e-newsletter that the apprentice is available to do services for the salon at a discounted rate.

However, the time you save in delegating some tasks to the apprentice may be countered by the time you are obligated to spend training her. In addition to crossing two hours off of her books a day for training, Tomlinson also sometimes comes in early or on days off to train an apprentice. She says that the first time she took on an apprentice was the most work. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to write all of the tests for the first time. Now I just have the tests saved on my computer, and I ask the apprentices to use their own paper for the workbook assignments so I can reuse the books,” she says.

At Spa on the Boulevard (where Styers is the spa’s first ever apprentice, though it is gearing up to take two more), spa manager Katie Hettinger and owner Saudia Green advise that as the teacher you set goals for your apprentice at all times. “We chose a service each month to focus on and we won’t move on to the next teaching skill until our apprentice has mastered the previous one. This helps both the mentor and the apprentice because we always know that she is being taught in a sufficient manner. If the apprentice has mastered the skill early, then we are able to move onto the next service early,” they say.

Recruiting an apprentice can also be time-consuming, though often salons recruit current employees or clients. “Honestly, the apprenticeship fell into our laps. We had hired someone to work the front desk and a beautiful relationship was started from there,” Hettinger says. “We are able to teach and mentor her in a field that we are all so passionate about.”

Apprenticeship veteran Tomlinson recruits with ads and promotions in her e-newsletter. “I’ll say ‘Sandi’s looking for the right person to apprentice,’ in my e-newsletter, and I’ve gotten some people from that,” Tomlinson says. Tomlinson also gives a $100 bonus to clients who send her an apprentice, which she says is worth it to cultivate a nail tech to hire.

Apprentices also offer the closest opportunity to “cloning” yourself, as Tina Caton, owner of Polished Nail Lounge in Richmond, Va., sees it. “My first two apprentices are now my best friends, and I have former apprentices who are now salon owners, one is working as a booth renter, and two are employed by one of my previous employees. We still all stay in touch regularly and they call me if they have questions — anything from lease signing to technical to supply emergencies. I can only work 40 hours a week, with my full book and my turning clients away, I’d rather teach others and ‘clone’ myself.”

Caton, who is considering opening a school to train more people more quickly, adds, “There is an advantage to teaching these young aspiring nail technicians because they are willing to work for it and they know it takes time, and they will make money if they do things right.”

Next page: Pushing for change in your state


“Life changes have split us up but not kept us apart,” says Vicki Jensen (center) of the nail techs she apprenticed under, including Francine Rantala (left) and Lisa Moore-King (right).

“Life changes have split us up but not kept us apart,” says Vicki Jensen (center) of the nail techs she apprenticed under, including Francine Rantala (left) and Lisa Moore-King (right).

What If My State Doesn't Offer Apprenticeships?

Whether you’re an aspiring nail tech who would prefer to apprentice or a nail tech or salon owner who wants to pass along your skills to the next generation, if your state doesn’t allow apprenticeship in lieu of school, then you have two main options. (Well, three, but the third is to move to a state that recognizes apprenticeship, which is probably not a viable option for many.)

The first is to go the recognized beauty school route, then do an unofficial apprenticeship program after licensure. That is, find a salon that is willing to let you shadow its nail techs, do easy tasks, and most importantly, train you in real world nail application and client interaction, for a period of about six months. (And if you’re a nail tech or salon owner, you can create such a program for newly licensed nail techs and market it like crazy.) Of course, such a program won’t have the cost advantages of an apprenticeship program. That is the easier of the two routes.

The second option is to get the law in your state changed, which may not be quite as difficult as it initially sounds. “It sounds scary but it really isn’t,” says Myra Irizarry, the director, government affairs, of the Professional Beauty Association ( “You don’t have to hire a lobbyist. A business owner-constituent speaking to her elected official is very powerful.”

The first step in getting the law changed is to find out which government body has the ability to change this particular law. This most likely falls to either the state board or the legislature in your state. How do you find that out? Ask your state board. Some have advisory capacity, but not law-making authority. For example, one reader asked NAILS how to get apprenticeship as an option in her state of North Carolina. We e-mailed the state board using the address published in NAILS’ Big Book and received an answer the next business day that for that particular state, that change would have to go through the legislature.

If your state board does have law-making authority, then ask to be added as an agenda item for its next meeting. “You can request to make a presentation, like a 10-minute PowerPoint,” Irizarry says. “Board meetings are open.”

If it’s the legislature, then it’s best to still contact the board to give them a heads-up about what you are doing (for transparency and maybe their support, as they will find out anyway if you get far enough along), then make appointments with both your state-level senator and your state-level house member for a meeting. (State-level senators and house members are those who report to the state capitol, not the federal senators and house members that report to Washington D.C.)

At the meeting, Irizarry says it is important to come armed with facts. Introduce yourself, then say something like “I’d like apprenticeships for nail techs. I want you to introduce new legislation on my behalf.” Bring a list of states that already have this law in place and bring examples of the actual legal text for a state whose verbiage your representative could simply copy. Contact states that have apprentice programs and find out how they are working. For instance, why was the program introduced? How do the state board fines compare for nail techs who were licensed via the school route via nail techs who were licensed via the apprenticeship route? Play to the representative’s interests. For example, if it is a representative who is known for being pro-small business, then point out that this new legislation would give small business owners (salon owners) a choice in who they hire, whether that’s someone who graduated from a school or someone who completed an apprenticeship. (You will need to do this for both the senator and the house member, as in most states a separate bill has to be introduced in each house.) Make a case they can’t refuse.

Once the bill is introduced (you’ll need to pay attention to both houses and follow these steps for both), read, and assigned a number, then it will be assigned to a committee. At that point, you should gather your support, both on the committee and from other beauty professionals. On the committee side, ask to testify at the meeting at which the bill will be discussed. Provide written testimony as well. Ask other salon owners and nail techs to do the same. You will also need to anticipate your opposition; for instance, schools may oppose the bill because they may be worried it will cost them students. Perhaps you can find a way to work with the schools (for instance, if they can do the theory portion of the apprenticeship) or you need to bulk up your supporters.

Once the bill passes out of committee, it will be given a vote date. Before that date, contact all legislators (via e-mail, phone, or a personal visit) and ask for their support. If you can identify particular legislators who you suspect will oppose the bill, then develop a compelling argument to sway them to your side.

Once the bill passes both houses, it will go to the governor to be signed into law (barring a veto).

That’s the basic process, but of course there may be obstacles along the way, including many of the built-in deadlines the government has, which sometimes result in good bills simply running out of time to pass. “If you run out of time the first time, such as if it doesn’t get out of committee, that’s not a failure,” Irizarry says. “You have a draft to start with next time.”

The Professional Beauty Association can help you with some of the process, such as telling you when your state’s legislative session starts, and you can reach Irizarry at myra[at]

And regardless of which route you choose to earn your license or hire new techs, we encourage you to take continuing education classes throughout your career — which you can do regardless of which state you live in.

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