Think about the last time you went into a busy bar. The bartender is usually so occupied taking drink orders and mixing up his fancy concoctions that he doesn’t have a second to breathe, let alone restock the bar or wash glasses. But have no fear, because he’s usually got backup in the form of a barback.

Many hairstylists use a similar approach with assistants — someone to help them get the client settled, offer the client a drink, wash the client’s hair, and sometimes even help with the color mixing or blow drying. So why hasn’t the nail industry embraced this practice wholeheartedly?

According to Roula Nassar, owner and president of Roula’s Nail Spa in Houston, the problem might be two-fold. For one, she says, aspiring nail students might not be interested in being in charge of cleanup. And there isn’t a logical place where the nail assistant could fit into the service.

She says that theoretically a hair assistant and nail assistant should be equally feasible, but the main difference is when a client is getting her hair done there are different functions that can logically be split up. For example, there is shampooing, coloring, and then the actual cutting. But for nails, there does not seem to be an easy way to break up the steps of the service. “Short of cleaning, disinfecting, and getting drinks, I don’t know how else to split it up,” says Nassar, “because I think it is unprofessional to breakup the actual manicure, pedicure, or enhancement services.”

Julie Hoey, assistant general manager of Currie Hair Skin and Nails in Glen Mills, Pa., says hair assistants significantly help the salon by allowing more appointments to be booked closer together and by allowing the stylists to simply focus on the cutting and styling. But though there are differences between a hairstyling process and a nail service, there does seem to be an opportunity for the existence of a nail tech assistant if under the right circumstances.

So why not have an assistant work in whatever capacity best fits your salon’s needs? Some salons have hired nail students to assist in cleaning and prepping stations for the nail technicians. The assistants can also greet clients, get them a drink, and lead them back to your station. They might also make sure the station — manicure or pedicure— is cleaned and stocked for whatever service the next client is receiving. And in doing so, the assistant will gain valuable knowledge of how your salon operates and real-world experience she isn’t receiving at school.

Specialization Can Improve Efficiency

While Nassar does not have any nail tech assistants, she does employ a staff of cleaners to help keep the manicure and pedicure stations clean and sanitized. Nassar believes in specialization; she feels if a salon does not already have a cleaning staff, a nail tech assistant could assume that role and significantly improve the salon’s efficiency.

For every five nail technicians who are working a given shift, one cleaning person is stationed on the floor to keep things tidy. Nassar reasons that if her nail technicians make an average of $70 an hour, then when they take five minutes to quickly sanitize and clean up after a manicure, it amounts to about $5.80 of lost revenue. So by having a cleaning person on-hand to handle these responsibilities, nail technicians can focus their efforts entirely on servicing clients and doing nails. Nassar says, “I’d rather pay somebody $8 an hour to assist in cleaning all of the spa chairs and setting them up, versus losing $5.80 for every five minutes a technician is dedicating her revenue-producing time to cleaning those stations.”

The problem is this cleaning aspect may not appeal to assistants who aspire to become technicians. “Many times I’ve wished that I could offer a hybrid-type position of both a nail tech apprentice plus cleaning person, but I feel that nail tech assistants would really not be interested unless they would be able to work on nails and gain hands-on experience,” says Nassar.

Nail Assistants in Action

While Nassar works with a housekeeping crew, there are other salons operating nail tech apprentice programs. One such program is in the Mario Tricoci salons. Gina Zimmer, the regional technical leader for the company’s nail department, says the salon chain has been using such a program for the past eight years.

“If we have a woman who is in nail school, or maybe just out of high school and going to start a nail program in the fall, we’ll hire her as a nail assistant and she’ll do the towels, learn sanitation procedures ,and also get to observe the day-to-day business of being a nail technician,” says Zimmer.

But these nail assistants are prohibited from actually working on clients’ nails until they receive their license and complete a three-week training course at the Mario Tricoci Salon. So assistants get their hands-on training on off-days, when they can practice on family or friends or other employees. Under the supervision of nail technicians, assistants practice fills, full-sets, and polishing techniques and get feedback on how to improve. Then once an assistant receives her license, she can start her three-week training course and be on her way to becoming a full-fledged nail technician.

Mario Tricoci salons also employ cleaning people, whose sole responsibility is to keep the salon clean and sanitized. So the nail assistants fill a role that is somewhere between a cleaning person and a nail technician. They are in charge of making sure the towels and stations are set up properly and that all of the products are ready for the technician. They fill up the lotions and scrubs, and get everything together so the technician has everything she will need. Once the client comes in, the assistants make sure the services run smoothly and the guests have an enjoyable experience.


Assistants Can Be Good Investments

Zimmer says one of the benefits of having assistants is once they receive their license and complete the training course, the salon owners know they now have a qualified nail technician as a new part of the team.

“It’s very, very difficult to find quality nail techs, nowadays,” says Zimmer. This sentiment is also expressed by Nassar, who says she has had a hard time finding good nail technicians.

“I’m always hesitant to hire people without experience because we have such a high standard of service here,” says Nassar. The notion is students fresh out of schools lack real-world application techniques and are primarily just taught how to pass state exams.

Though Nassar does not have any nail assistants, she does see the value in what the role can offer. If owners use assistants who are in cosmetology school, they are actually cultivating an important relationship.

“In an industry where there is a pretty high turnover rate, I think there is a lot to be said for investing in your personnel,” says Nassar. “I think if your staff sees that you are going through the effort of training them, educating them, and nurturing them, then they are far more receptive to being loyal on a long-term basis.”

According to Zimmer, the apprentice program has played an integral role in the growth and development of the Mario Tricoci salons. “It’s essentially how our company was built,” says Zimmer. “When I started here 18 years ago there were only two locations and now we have 21. I think for smaller salons it is really important to cultivate somebody who is going to help build your business with you.”

Zimmer says assistants who come back as nail technicians already have an understanding of the salon’s procedures and culture, and often carry a strong tie to the salon that first gave them a chance.

The Benefits of an Assistant

For the Salon

• Allows nail technicians to focus entirely on their craft — doing nails. This can be used as a recruiting tool for hiring new technicians, since they won’t have to worry about dealing with cleanup duties.

• Allows appointments to be scheduled closer together, thus creating more appointments per day and more revenue.

• An assistant relationship can be cultivated into a future loyal nail technician.

• Training time for nail techs that were once assistants is greatly decreased.

For the Assistant

• Allows the assistant to get a first glimpse into working in a nail salon.

• Allows the nail assistant to establish trust and build clientele.

• Gives the assistant an opportunity to practice techniques and protocol under the helpful eye of senior nail technicians.

• Gives the assistant good experience and a possible job opportunity once the assistant receives a license and becomes a nail tech.

Setting Up an Assistant Program That Works For You

If you decide that you would like to explore the possibility of creating an assistant position in your salon, there are some things to consider. What type of assistant would you like to have? There are salons that use assistants as trainees and possible future nail techs, and there are also salons that hire assistants merely to keep things tidy and attract customers.

Maisie Dunbar, the owner of M&M Nail and Wellness Center in Silver Spring, Md., says she uses her assistant program as a way of recruiting and training future nail technicians.

“I have had a total of about 10 assistants who have gone on to become nail techs here,” Dunbar says, “and it has really helped our business out a lot.”

Dunbar usually staffs one assistant for the four full-time technicians, and she trains them and pays them well so they will one day become nail technicians. Dunbar says in this line of work, being a nail assistant can be a big head-start for budding technicians.

“In the line of work we do, people have to develop trust, and the more people see you, the more likely it is they will start coming to your chair,” she says. “So by taking off polish and setting up clients, assistants have already started a relationship with the customers, and then once they get their license they will have an easier transition.”

Cassie Piasecki, the owner of The Nail Lounge in Costa Mesa, Calif., uses assistants in a different way. She hires “preppers,” who fill the role of overall cleaning and disinfecting, but they do not usually have aspirations to pursue a career in nails.

“They are typically younger high-school age or college-age kids,” Piasecki says, “and I’ve only had two who actually came in while they were attending cosmetology school.”

For Piasecki, the primary goal for the preppers is to keep the salon clean and help the technicians focus on their clients.

Piasecki also uses her preppers as clever marketing tools. During prom and winter formal seasons, Piasecki has hired high school boys as preppers to help bring in female clients.

She says, “It was fun for me to have the boys, because they were usually cute high school boys, and the girls liked seeing them on the weekends, and the ladies liked seeing them during the week.”

And to keep the preppers coming in, Piasecki’s nail technicians allocate some of their tips toward the preppers, thereby increasing a minimum wage salary by about $8 an hour.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.