Having problems hiring a good nail technician who will stay put? You’re not alone. Whether you own a full-service salon, nails-only salon, or even a spa, it seems like finding qualified nail technicians to fill nail tables and pedicure chairs is one of the most challenging issues facing salon owners today, making them extremely frustrated in the process.

“I live in an area with a small, permanent population and it is extremely difficult for me to hire nail technicians,” says Deborah Reeves, owner of Nailz Hand & Foot Spa in Cashiers, N.C. “I often wonder if these circumstances are what actually make it difficult or if times are just changing.”

But are times really changing and are people less interested in pursuing careers as nail technicians? According to NAILS’ 2004-2005 Big Book, in 2004 there were 393,226 licensed nail technicians in the United States, a 5.5% increase from the previous year. So if there are more nail techs out there, why does there seem to be such a problem hiring them, and more importantly, keeping them?

A NAILS survey of full-service salon owners in February of this year revealed that 59.9% have found it difficult to find qualified nail technicians for their nail departments, and 71.1% of these salon owners also said there has been an increase in the demand among clients for nail care in the last 12 months.

While it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly why there is such a problem filling empty nail tables and pedicure thrones with nail techs, the truth remains that good employees make up the heart and soul of a salon. Without them, the best décor and highest-quality products don’t really matter.

We interviewed salon owners and directors about their hiring strategies and how they have been able to attract and keep nail technicians. While they’re quick to admit that finding nail techs is a challenge, it is one that can be done, provided you’re willing to put in some extra time and effort.

Recruiting Strategies That Work

Before you even begin putting out those help wanted signs, it’s important to have an idea of the type of employee you’re looking for. Think about your salon’s atmosphere and the people who currently work for you. Are you a small salon with a cozy, warm, friendly environment or a bigger salon with a more tranquil, spa-like feel? Do your nail technicians really work together as a team or do they seem to work better individually?

You also need to think about whether you’d prefer to hire someone with experience or if you wouldn’t mind taking in a less experienced nail tech and training her.

At Naperville, Ill.-based Zanos Salons, for example, all nail technicians attend the Nail Academy Program, which consists of two days of instruction and model time and one day assisting in the salon with their instructor. Nail techs learn all of the services Zanos offers and as soon as they learn a service can be booked with clients.

“I have always found that recruiting nail techs depends on what you need them for,” says Earleen Bennett, owner of The Secret Spa in Asheville, N.C. “If you are a booth-rental salon and only want to fill a spot, look for someone with experience and a good clientele so you won’t have to babysit her. If you are a commission-based salon then I suggest hiring someone fresh and grooming her.”

Keep in mind that while some hiring strategies may work for some salon owners, others may find it difficult using those same tactics. And you may not always be able to rely on one method. Mary Metscaviz, owner of Awesome Nails in Grayslake, Ill., has benefited from using different strategies, for example.

“I placed a rewards poster in my salon asking my clientele to find me a new nail technician,” she says. “I paid anyone who found me a tech $100. It’s cheaper than putting an ad in the newspaper and I only had to pay the client if I hired someone.” However, she found the best way to find a new nail tech was to acquire a list of all licensed nail techs in her state and narrow the search to local zip codes. “I wrote a letter and sent it to all the nail techs,” Metscaviz says. “In the letter I mentioned I was looking for a motivated nail tech to join my team of award-winning nail techs and was willing to train this new hire for free. I usually charge $50 an hour to train a nail tech.”

If you’re really bent on hiring a nail technician it may mean foregoing the usual tactics and trying unlikely strategies. Tamara Stanicek, director of human resources and education for Zanos Salons, says word-of-mouth referrals, visiting beauty schools, and newspaper and website ads have helped, but she doesn’t stop there. “I recruit at malls, restaurants, grocery stores, my neighborhood, schools, and sporting events,” she says. “I’m always looking for potential employees.”

Almost every salon owner we spoke with said they think recruiting at schools is great. And that doesn’t just mean going to cosmetology schools. Offer to talk to high school students about a career in the nail industry. Many high schools have career days or career centers you can visit. Talk to the school’s guidance counselor about the nail industry and tout its benefits. If you do recruit at a nail or cosmetology school you can even offer internship or apprenticeship programs, permitted your state allows it. Renee Borowy, owner of VIP Salon & Spa in Riverview, Mich., has offered an apprenticeship program in her salon for about 15 years and has placed about 50 nail techs in her own salon as a result.

“The state of Michigan allows two apprentices in a salon every six months,” Borowy explains. “I’m allowed four a year. They work with a senior nail technician and then take their state board exams and get their license.” And don’t just think you can only stick to beauty schools and high schools. If there’s a job fair in your area, think about renting a booth and talking up a storm about why your salon and doing nails are the greatest. Shari Finger, owner of Finger’s Nail Studio in West Dundee, Ill., found her newest nail tech at a drugstore, for example. “I loved her personality and how she was so willing to help each customer,” she says. “I invited her to come in for a set of nails and after a couple of appointments I knew she was what I was looking for.”

You may want to try bringing in people who are looking for a second career. Many former nurses have turned to a career in nails, for instance. Stay-at home moms who are looking to get back into the work force also often focus on a career in nails. Or maybe that bored bank teller you keep running into may be excited by a new career. Try getting clients to become nail techs. You don’t even need to look too far for this one. Talk to your clients about the benefits of being a nail tech. You may not even really need to talk too much if you have a regular clientele since they probably already know a thing or two about the industry. Focus on an older workforce. Don’t assume that because someone is older she might not be able to get the job done. Older people have years of work experience, which can be a benefit to you and your salon.

Give to Get

We all know how difficult it can be to establish a clientele when you’re first starting off. It takes a while to establish yourself and start making money. And if you are willing to give that nail tech a little help she will be more likely to want to work and stay put.

Some salons, especially bigger chain salons, are busy enough to ensure employees will be handed clients from the beginning. If your salon isn’t quite as busy, you may think about offering a guaranteed salary so that slower nail techs can improve their skills and still make a guaranteed amount of money. Once their speed has improved you can switch them to commission-based pay.

Another option is implementing a team-based pay program. Offer established nail techs incentives for helping new employees get more clients. The incentive doesn’t always have to be money either. You cannot rule out the importance of offering good benefits and incentives. As a salon owner, there are many ways you can compensate employees.

Millie Haynam, owner of Natural Beauty Salon in Twinsburg, Ohio, works with nail techs to improve their skills. “We also give rewards for re-bookings and add-on services and pay a sliding scale of commission the more they sell retail,” she says.

Sometimes giving back can mean doing something fun while giving nail technicians recognition. At Roula’s Nail Spa in Houston, owner Roula Nassar recently introduced an Employee of the Month program. Each month team members choose an employee, who is spotlighted in front of her clients. At the end of the year, the monthly awards are tallied up and the employee with the most awards receives a paid cruise. Each employee is asked to contribute $2 per pay period and the spa covers the difference in price. If you give employees something to aspire to, they’ll definitely be interested in working for you if they know they have a chance to move up.

Zanos Salons has two different levels of nail techs — basic and master. “A master tech has the repertoire of artificial nail services that she has added to her manicure and pedicure services,” says Stanicek. “This ensures a master tech can accept any type of nail guest onto her books. And because a master tech has a few more ‘tools in her toolbox,’ she receives a higher commission.”

Finger supplies employees with all of their products. Full-time employees get paid vacations and salon support to take care of her clients while she is gone.

Offering paid time off, flexible hours, paid vacation, sick leave, and 401(k) plans are all great benefits, but some salons may be too small and have limited resources to offer them. You can, however, provide counseling services to your employees.

For example, you can arrange to have an investment counselor speak to your employees about group health insurance, dental insurance, and setting up a 401(k) plan. And, if you have a minimum number of employees you can arrange for a group health insurance plan. Employees can then be responsible for all or part of the premiums.

Employees also stay with a salon if they feel they are a part of the team and are appreciated. “It’s all about how you treat your people,” agrees Borowy. “If you treat them well they’d rather work for you instead of opening their own salon.” Have an open-door policy and let nail techs know you’re there to listen to their ideas and concerns.

Encourage and allow employees to attend trade shows and competitions and mention that during the interview. That added knowledge and reputation is an asset to the salon. And, regularly bring in people to teach classes, whether it be someone representing a manufacturer or an independent educator. If nail techs know this will be a part of the job they’ll be more interested in applying. “We offer up to $800 in scholarship money to be used for tuition to attend classes that are offered outside of our own company education,” says Stanicek. “All a nail tech has to do is submit by e-mail or letter her intent to enroll in a class, the benefit it will provide her, and a willingness to bring her knowledge back to her teammates.”

Judging an Applicant

When a potential employee shows up for an interview there are a few things you should pay particular attention to.

Technician-specific skills. Test her nail application skills. Is she fast, but accurate? Does she use implements properly? Can she tell you the difference between sanitation and disinfection?

Conceptual skills. Give the nail technician a possible situation she might encounter in the salon and see how she would handle or improve it. Also find out how many clients she can finish in a specific time.

Interpersonal skills. How does the nail tech interact with you? Does she seem friendly? Reserved? How do you think she would interact with the other employees?

Leadership skills. Has she had experience being in charge of other people? Does she have the potential to ever become a leader or manager?

The Interview Process

When it comes to interviewing a potential employee, salon owners have their own way of doing things. We asked a few salons what their interview process is like.

VIP Salon & Spa: Owner Renee Borowy has nail techs come to the salon, where they sit and talk for at least 30 minutes. “I ask them what they think the future holds for them, what they’re looking for, what their perfect schedule would be,” she says. After the interview she has the nail tech perform a manicure, pedicure, and set of artificial enhancements on one of her senior nail techs. The senior tech then gives Borowy a critique of the nails and an assessment of her skill level. Then Borowy can determine how much training the nail tech needs. “For me, personality is more important, along with an ability to take constructive criticism to further their skills, over someone without a personality. I can always teach someone to do a great set of nails.”

The Secret Spa: Owner Earleen Bennett usually does an in-salon interview and either has them do a set of nails in the salon or bring in someone that nail tech has worked on, but says she mainly goes on instinct. “Remember to keep yourself protected. Do probationary periods for new techs in case they don’t work out. That way you can let them go without a big hassle. For booth renters, give them and yourself an out if needed,” she says.

Zanos Salons: Director of human resources and education Tamara Stanicek first meets with an applicant and decides whether or not she will be a good fit based on demeanor, willingness to learn and be coached, and a work ethic that mirrors the company’s work ethic and philosophies. “Our company touts that we hire ‘nice people’ and that’s the type of people we want,” she says. The applicant then performs a technical interview with nail instructor Shawn Bingen, who then gives Stanicek a yay or nay based on the nail tech’s technical ability, ability to be coached and directed, and demeanor. If it’s a go, the nail tech is sent to the salon’s Nail Academy Program.

“What Attracted Me to My Salon”

“They’re very professional and treat me with respect. Their philosophy is to put their employees first. If the employees are happy then the guests in turn will be happy. I like their open-door policy. If you need to talk with your boss about something, all you need to do is stop by the office. The door is literally always open. They also offer wonderful benefits. If you work part or full time you are eligible for a bonus every quarter. They also have group outings for you and your family and offer insurance to full- and part-time employees. On top of all that, my coworkers are friendly and helpful.”

Diana Tingle

Canyon Ranch Spa Club at Gaylord Palms

Kissimmee, Fla.

“My salon appealed to me because I work with family — my cousin is the owner. She’s very understanding about me taking time off. I took a lot of time off for personal reasons and she didn’t have a problem with it at all. I’m also a Creative educator and take time off for events and she doesn’t mind.”

Holly Schippers

The Hairport

Oskaloosa, Iowa

“About seven years ago the Monday before Christmas I saw an ad in the paper for a salon that was hiring. I decided to apply and during the interview the owner told me she offered insurance benefits, a 401(k) plan, paid vacation, and said she would fill my chair with clients. That was the deal maker for me because the salon I was previously at was not as big and I was not making enough money. She didn’t lie about filling my chair. It has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.”

Angela Saul

Design 1 Salon and Day Spa

Grand Rapids, Mich.

“One of the most appealing benefits of the salon I work at is the atmosphere. Everything is so funky and everyone is so nice. It just seemed like a fun place to work. Everyone is required to attend classes and perform three of each service on a staff member before they are allowed to add the service to their book, which makes clients feel a little more at ease when dealing with a new stylist or nail technician.”

Leigh Marticio

Heaven and Earth Salon and Spa

Pottsville, Pa.

Different Challenges for Different Salons

Depending on the type of salon you are you may face different challenges when it comes to hiring.

As a larger salon and a chain at that, Zanos Salons might seem intimidating to nail techs fresh out of school, says Tamara Stanicek. “Some of our staff members put together company photo shoots, travel all over the country to education events and speaking engagements, and are written up in publications,” she says. “Some applicants are too nervous to apply because they think our academy may be too challenging or they may not be experienced enough to rub elbows with some of our veteran staff.”

Since the salon focuses on hiring “nice people,” applicants who come into the salons soon realize, however, that they are in a warm, friendly environment, so all fears are usually dashed.

At five nail techs strong, Roula’s Nail Spa may be smaller, but it also faces its own challenges. Owner Roula Nassar says she faces several obstacles, including an oversaturated market filled with different salons and spas. Plus, she offers a guaranteed income as opposed to a commission-based pay, which makes it harder to hire people used to working on commission. “I’ve also found it difficult to hire nail technicians who accept paying income taxes,” she says. “They are often paid in cash at other salons, so it poses a challenge for me because I have to pay high compensation rates so their take-home pay is comparable to what they would make without paying taxes.”

Earleen Bennett, owner of The Secret Spa, says spas can be hard to hire for, especially if the spa owner is looking for someone who only does natural nails. “We all know there is a lot of money in nail enhancements and we all like to make money, no one more than a new nail tech. People can tend to be hard workers when they are hungry,” she says.

And if you’re a small salon, whether full service or nails only, it can be a challenge to stand up to the bigger salons in the area. Smaller salons are not as apt to offer the same type of benefits as a bigger salon might.

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