When Robert Rosenberg took over Artistic Nails Academy in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area 11 years ago, between 50 and 100 students would typically crowd into a tiny classroom for instruction specifically geared toward getting a nail technician license.

His students began asking for instruction in other areas, so Rosenberg added hair, barbering, and skin care. The school became Artistic Nails and Beauty Academy.

About four years ago, though, nails-only enrollment started dwindling. This year, Rosenberg cut out the last nails-only course. “I can’t pay a teacher for just two students,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg’s other programs are stronger than ever. The academy expanded this summer into a 12,000-square-foot building in Tampa and he plans to add massage to its course offerings.

Beauty schools in the rest of the United States are mirroring Rosenberg’s experience. Schools are expanding and the number of new cosmetology students is up dramatically.

But enrollment in nails-only programs has dropped by nearly one-fifth, according to figures gathered by the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences (NACCAS) in Alexandria, Va. Schools across the country are eliminating their nail courses.

Students are flocking to skin care programs, now the fastest-growing segment of the industry, according to NACCAS.

“When nail services started becoming more mainstream, there was this huge boom,” reflects Teresa Lewis, a nail technician who heads OPI’s schools division and coordinates its student scholarship program. “Now that skin care has become mainstream, there’s this huge boom in opportunities for estheticians.”

Schools that do offer nails programs face a shortage of qualified nail educators. In some areas, programs are challenged by problems in government-subsidized vocational programs.

But despite these changes, great career opportunities still exist for nail graduates, Lewis says.

NACCAS figures bear her out: Salon owners can’t find enough qualified nail technicians to fill the positions they have open. Nail techs make up nearly 10% of the jobs in the beauty industry — but openings for nail techs make up 16% of the openings industry-wide.

“That’s where you get the zero unemployment factor. If you happen to graduate from nail school, you have a job,” says NACCAS spokesman Clifford Culbreath.

Skin Up, Nails Down

Changing cosmetology enrollments reflect what’s going on in the world, says Mary Bird, who compiles school statistics for NACCAS. “You have the aging population, the emphasis on youth, the abuse of the skin before we had these new sunblock products, and the emphasis on the needs of the skin,” Bird says.

In Florida, Mez Varol, president of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools/Cosmetology Educators of America (AACS/CEA), is even seeing doctors getting into the beauty business.

“Every plastic surgeon has two or three estheticians working for him,” Varol says. “Within the past year, five resorts have opened up multi-service spas. They need employees.”

And students are responding. Enrollment in esthetician courses at NACCAS-accredited schools more than doubled between 1998 and 2002, to 7,548 students, Bird says. Dana Caruso, owner of Long Island Nail & Skin Care Institute, has seen a similar decline in nail enrollment since 2002, while the number of esthetics students has doubled. “There’s a perception that doing nails is no longer a viable career option,” she says. She attributes the lure of the spa environment to the increase in skin care enrollment. “Many of our esthetics students come from the corporate world. They’re seeking a more relaxing, enjoyable workday,” she says.

Discount Salons Deter Students

At Varol’s school, nails-only enrollment has declined from a thriving program six years ago to just five students this year, out of 350 total students.

So Varol cut out his evening nail classes. He says young people are turning away from nails despite jobs in his area.

“The natural nail business is growing. Salons are calling us. They’re looking for a tech who can do manicures, pedicures, and natural nails, but the kids don’t want to go to school just for that,” Varol says.

He blames the waning interest on the proliferation of discount salons in south Florida. “Maybe our area is saturated. There is almost a price war out there and some of our kids don’t want to sit and do sets for $18 and fill-ins for $10,” he says.

“The person who finishes the nails-only program often comes back and finishes the cosmetology program or the skin program,” Varol goes on. “They find they need these additional skills.”

So most students at the International Academy are heading for the full cosmetology program, Varol says. “It makes you more marketable than if all you’re doing is nails. They become multi-talented, they can multi-task.”

Nationally, cosmetology has always been the backbone of beauty education. But between 1998 and 2002, the number of students enrolled in full cosmetology programs rose by 23%, NACCAS reports.

This does not surprise Nadene Bruder, a cosmetology and nails instructor at the California Hair Design Academy and School of Cosmetology in La Mesa, Calif. A new graduate in nails typically needs two to three years of steady, full-time effort to build a good clientele and make a living, she says. A new person who is licensed to perform multiple services has more income-earning opportunities, Bruder and Verol both reason.

Vocational Programs Impact Field

Cosmetology education in some areas is being hurt by government subsidies designed to help disadvantaged people get vocational training, some beauty professionals report.

As a result, some cosmetology schools are seeing students who attend class just so they can receive other government benefits, not because they have a true career interest, Bruder says. For those schools, the payment the government sends for subsidized students is far below the cost of putting on a class. If a school gets many of these students, it can make a program financially unworkable.

The combination of indifferent student attitude and financial burden has prompted some southern California beauty schools to pull out of subsidized vocational programs, Bruder says. With nail programs running $3,000 to $4,000, that limits access to students who really do want to pursue a nail license.

Ironically, the government itself may nix a nail education as well. In some areas of Pennsylvania, the state will pay for a cosmetology education, but not for a nails-only program, says Rhonda Kibuk, owner of The Purple Pinkie Nail Salon in Ford City, Pa.

“The state does not recognize being a nail tech as a lucrative career in my area,” she says.

Few Qualified Nail Teachers

Most of the nation’s 915 NACCAS-accredited beauty schools still offered a nails curriculum in 2002. However, those schools often face a shortage of qualified nail instructors.

Part of the problem for nails is that most states require the nail instructor to be a licensed cosmetologist. They also need a second license as a cosmetology instructor, says Kirby Morris, president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards (NICSB).

“But I see that changing with break-out licensing. Nails started that with nail licensing,” Morris says.

The problem this creates for nails, Bruder explains, is “not all cosmetologists have that interest in nails. I was one of the few (in the San Diego area) who had a passion for both hair and nails, and I brought that to our program.” Kibuk wasn’t so fortunate when she attended her nail program in Pennsylvania.

“I was taught by a student instructor who had graduated two days before I started the program. Then she quit and there was a whole week I didn’t have an instructor at all,” Kibuk recalls. “On my very last day of school, we had a product educator come in. I learned more in 45 minutes than in the seven weeks I was in school.”

And a poor instructor can kill a program, as the word gets around about bad experiences, Lewis warns.

In contrast, schools with great nail instructors who have been in place for at least five years are seeing an increase in their nail-only enrollments, Lewis reports.

Outlook Still Good for Nails

Despite these changes and challenges, the outlook for cosmetology school graduates in all areas is good, with a strong job market awaiting them.

“Most of our schools are full to capacity or have waiting lists to get in. We’ve increased the number of schools we’ve accredited,” says NACCAS director Christopher Walck.

“Our job demand shows that most salons are looking for at least two to three individuals to hire in services across the board,” he adds. “A lot of the large chains want to open more salons, but there is a shortage of trained professionals that limits their growth potential.”

And even though there’s a surge in other beauty professions, Lewis remains optimistic about the outlook for nails in particular. “All the nail techs I talk to who are graduating already have a job waiting for them. The jobs are out there. That’s not always true for estheticians.

“I think nails will come up again. I don’t think it’ll ever be at the point where it was 10 years ago, but I also think that’s true of estheticians. It’s cyclical,” Lewis says.

Trina Kleist is a freelance writer based in Grass Valley, Calif.

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