Worried that you can’t find enough employees to staff your salon? Wondering why it seems like too many nail technicians are leaving and too few new people are entering the industry? Why, when the business of nails is at an all-time high of $6.4 billion, are salon owners across the nation having so much trouble finding and retaining nail techs? If there were 324,081 nail licensees in 1999 how come you can’t find a few of them?

The answer is not simple. It’s comforting that businesses across the country are facing the same worker shortage the salon industry is, but there are some specific issues that we face alone that are causing us to lose (or at least not attract) new talent to our industry. The key to winning them over are the things that make the industry great: flexibility and creativity.

“Salon owners may feel like this problem is unique to the nail or even the beauty industry, but it’s simply not so,” says John Caspole, president of The Assessment Specialists, a Carlsbad, Calif., company that works with companies to help them recruit, interview, and hire employees, specializing in the professional beauty industry. “Unemployment is at a 40-year low. The unemployment rate in San Diego, for example, is 2%, and in Silicon Valley it’s 1.2%.

“I think that one of the reasons that it is felt so acutely in the beauty industry is because people are actually leaving this industry for opportunities that they perceive as being better,” he continues. “There are jobs available that offer guaranteed salaries and better benefits, and I believe that the beauty industry is losing some of its people because of this.”

The reasons nail technicians leave the industry are many, and some of the reasons are not easily fixed. But looking at the reasons many professionals leave the field points us in the direction of possible ways to keep the people still committed to nail care, and, hopefully, attract others who are currently deciding their career direction. After all, if we are losing qualified people to fields that allow them to make better money, have greater flexibility, and balance home and family life better, then what can be done to rectify that? Just as salon owners have to aggressively market their salons for potential customers, they must also market their salons as a place where nail professionals really want to work.

NAILS talked to all categories of people involved in the nail industry, from salon owners and techs, to school operators, distributors, manufacturers, association leaders, and other people whose livelihood depends on the professional beauty industry. We heard many dissertations on what’s wrong with the industry and why people are leaving, and in the process gleaned many ways of getting people to come in – and stay in. We’ve put together a list a creative solutions to the worker shortage, some obvious, some far-fetched. After all, if there are no techs to supply the demand for nail care services, there’s no need for products (and their manufacturers), associations (and their members), or even education (which means no need for teachers and schools and, gasp, trade magazines).


Expectations Are Not Being Met

According to some industry professionals, it all begins with what is taught in the schools. “Nail students are not getting enough hands-on experience in school,” says Terri Taricco, corporate manager of R.G. Shakour in Westboro, Mass. “Often, schools hire a hairdresser with a teaching certificate who has never even done nails to teach nail students. And they read right out of the book.”

And the reason Taricco is concerned is a valid one. “No one has total these new techs what to expect,” she says. “Schools act like they have taught them everything while they really haven’t. No one has actually told these students that they are not going to know everything. They are not prepared for what they will encounter right off the bat in a salon.” And what they will encounter, according to Taricco, is that they will not necessarily do great nails right out of school. So customers get discouraged and the salon owner gets discouraged and the new tech, who is not getting enough hands on training in school, gets discouraged and leaves the industry.

A wholesale restructuring of the educational system is an option many would like implemented, but presently, it’s not practical. Another option is for salon owners and nail techs to take education into their own hands. “When I had my own salon I was forced to hire people and train them myself,” says Taricco. “The first place where we can do better is in the schools. They have a chance to formulate a mind. We have made the profession more than just manicuring, and the schools, for the most part, are not keeping up with the industry.”

Shari Finger, owner of Finger’s Nail Studios in Dundee, Ill., starts new techs out with her customized training program, which begins with the basics – no matter how experienced the tech is. All nail techs at Finger’s Nail Studios start off as junior techs, but Finger is quick to note that if the tech has the skills and the experience, she will move up to senior tech more quickly.

Finger knows that sometimes a newbie simply needs support as much as technical training: “A lot of times we lose people who are new to the industry because they go work at a hair salon and they fail because they don’t have the knowledge and the confidence to deal with every situation. And they are not surrounded by people who can offer support.” Finger offers new employees the opportunity to work with senior techs in a one on one environment. “Our senior techs really work as mentors with the junior techs,” says Finger, “If this support is not available at the nail tech’s workplace, I think that it is important that she find someone who she can build a relationship with to be able to go to for support and help.”

If it were up to Taricco, hair salons wouldn’t even be able to hire newly licensed nail techs. “Hair salons simply don’t have the knowledge of previous experiences to draw from, and there are no other nail techs there to help new people,” she says. Taricco urges techs who are need of support, mentors, and continuing education to look on the Internet. There are a variety of sites that offer chart rooms for nail technicians to network and ask questions. She has also started a website (www.beautyhelpwanted.com) that offers help wanted listings for salons and nail technicians.   

“We need to clean up the schools,” says new salon owner Michael Wolper, whose Hands On salon (with partner Tony Wootton) in Beverly Hills, Calif., was opened to much fanfare last year. Wolper attended nail school himself despite the fact that he wouldn’t be doing nails, and h felt the pains firsthand of cosmetology school, he says. “We need to make the business of nails more professional. Right now, at least where I was, nail students are treated like second-tier students next to the hair students. Schools need to treat nail students like they are a little more special.”

So what can you do? First of all, get involved with the schools in your area. Offer a mentoring program or an apprenticeship program. Alert your area schools hat you are willing to work with students or talk to them about certain areas that are not covered in school. Offer to come in and talk to students about real-life issues that they will face one they get their license and their first job. “Salon owners can participate in internship programs with schools,” says Trisha Trackman, president of the Illinois Nail Tech Association. Illinois state board representative for nail technology, and owner of Trisha’s Ltd. salon in Highland Park, Ill., noting that this can also help the students feel more secure about the opportunities that are out there. If salon owners are willing to come in and take the time to talk to the students, they will remember that and feel more comfortable approaching the owner when they are looking for a job.

“Schools need to make students aware of who, in their area, they can go to for additional training and resources,” says Taricco. This can be as asset, not only for the schools and the students, but for the salon owner as well. By making yourself available as a mentor or a resource, you present your salon to future nail techs as a place where the can go and feel safe and comfortable.

Developing cooperative relationships with the schools in your area can help them become your greatest resource. Hands On sponsored the nail program at the local Santa Monica City College, and has shown the school that they are a salon willing to actively participate in the educational process. “We offer scholarships, donate tools and equipment, and the school offers Hands On-level training,” say Wolper. And in turn, the salon becomes well known among the students as a salon willing to invest in its future employees. “We’ve had students come work as interns at the salon, and we have even hired two of our technicians this way.”

Finger is also active in her local schools. “I have gone into schools to teach classes for no monetary compensation just so that I could get in touch with the students,” she says, noting that this method has had some success in meeting potential new hires.

Professional trade associations are even getting involved to help marry the two groups – salon owners and schools. Recently, board members of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) and The Salon Association (TSA) met to discuss ways to partner and ensure that schools produce the most prepared entry-level candidates. The salons, in turn, help those graduates continue on a successful path in their field. President of the TSA, Frank Zona, commented on the need for collaboration: “The bottom line is that if we really want to move the industry forward, we all need to understand that employers must be actively involved in the development of the workforce.” That means working with the schools.

Image Is Everything

One thing that comes up time and time again is that the public image of nail technicians needs a boost. Although not universally true, nail techs do get a bad rap today. Doing nails is not often thought of as a true profession. What is the point of even worrying about what the students are learning in schools if we cannot even get new students into the schools in the first place?


“We need to increase the public’s awareness of the profession of nail technology, not just the vocation,” says Trackman, who is also involved with Global Nail Exchange, an umbrella organization comprised of the presidents of nail associations.

“I have had a problem finding employees for three years now,” says Finger. “I used to have a file a applications for techs, and now I cannot even find anyone to interview. What it comes down to is that we have to change the image of the industry. We need to figure out a way to present ourselves differently.”

It is frustrating to many people who are already in the nail business who try to understand why more people aren’t interested in joining the industry. For some techs, money may not be the biggest motivator. Recruiters know that you need to show that doing nails affords you the opportunity to be in a fun and creative career. “I don’t think that the beauty business has promoted nails as being a fun career,” says Taricco. “I love this business; there is something free about it. It isn’t all about money.”

The Cosmetology Advancement Foundation (CAF) is making its way toward a heightened public awareness of the beauty industry in general. It recently produced a television commercial presenting the industry as fun and cutting edge that will be shown on youth-oriented channels, such a MTV, VH1, E!, and Lifetime. The spots, which have been airing since March, are aimed to hit at the end of the school year, at a time when career decisions are being made. The tagline at the end of the commercial is a generic call to action; however, it will also be made available to the industry so that local schools, organizations, or even salons can customize their own tagline to attract potential employees.

In addition to this, the CAF’s “Field of Dreams” video showcases different salon options – nails included – for people who might not have previously considered a career in cosmetology. “We take this video in to high school guidance counselors and PTA meetings,” says Norma Lee, a public relations consultant and outreach chair with the CAF. “High school counselors and parents need to be aware that a career in cosmetology is a viable option.

“We work with the people who have influence with students – those who may discourage students from going into cosmetology – and we show them all what they can accomplish in the different aspects of the industry,” says Lee. “We take successful professionals along with us to talk about their careers in the beauty industry.”

In addition to going into cosmetology and nails schools, salon owners can take it one step further and build relationships which local high schools. “Why not establish a relationship with a high school guidance counselor?” asks Caspole. Although there is an ample number of nail professionals with college degree, the nature of the business is that one is not required, and that is a potentially attractive aspect of the career to promote. Continues Caspole, “A lot of high school kids will not go on to college, but will instead go to vocational schools. Why not present our industry to the guidance counselors as a good option so that when a student comes to them for career advice, the counselor will think to suggest the beauty industry.”

It is also important to remember that young people are not your only target for potential future nail technicians. “The industry is already made up of a lot of people who came into nails as their second job,” say Finger. “We need to focus some energy on attracting more of these people into the industry.” And how do you do that? By focusing on a career in nails as fun, flexible, friendly, and creative. People who are bored or burned out on their first careers can turn to the beauty industry as a way to express themselves, while having the flexibility that may not have been available before.

Says Wolper, “We need to create a national awareness program that will bring more techs into the industry, but we also need to create a certain level of consumer awareness. There needs to be a role model. Someone who techs can aspire to be and who consumers will want to go to.” And he is right. Who, in nails, does both the industry look to as a star and the consumers look to as “the” place to go to get their nails done? In hair, there are José Eber and Frederic Fekkai, among many others. But is there a star in nails who is also well known at the consumer level and gets the kind of adulation from the beauty publications? There isn’t, although the nail industry has many potential role models and individuals whose stories could inspire others to join the ranks. “This could be good for bringing more nails techs into the industry, as well as to help elevate the perception of the industry in the public eye,” Wolper concludes.

The Small Salon Meets Corporate America

OK. Now let’s assume that we have addressed the issues above. More people are entering the industry due to an increased awareness on all levels and a better image of nail technicians as a group. In addition to this, schools and salons are partnering to raise the level of education and real-life experience so students will be better prepared to enter the industry. Even taking these other factors out of the education, there is still an issue with getting employees into your salon and keeping them there. And these have to do with you the individual salon – not the schools, not the associations, and not the public. There are a variety of reasons why nail technicians leave the industry, but let’s look at what you can do to keep the at your individual salon.

Money may not be everything, but it is a factor. Compensation and benefits are at the top of most people’s minds when evaluating career options – or career switching. Like any career, it takes a while to start earning “real money” doing nails, and it requires the same kind of patience that any career would take while your skills and client base build. “It takes a while to establish yourself and start really making money,” says Finger. “It is good money if the nail tech can just make it over that hump.”

Trackman agrees. “I think one big problem is that a lot of young people can’t afford to take the time, with little to no pay, to build a clientele. It takes a good year to build a substantial clientele.”    

Some salons, especially chain salons, are busy enough to ensure that even new technicians will have plenty of clients to service. Greg Tosti, owner of Florida chain The Nail Depot, explains how they help newcomers develop: “We have a rotation policy. So even if the new techs don’t have a following, we hand them customers from the beginning. We operate along the same lines as a Super Cuts. When we have walk-ins, they sign in and wait for the next available technician. No one wants to go in to a new job and not have clients.”

He also suggest offering a guarantee salary so that slower techs can work on their skills and get faster, and still make a guaranteed amount of money at the beginning. Then when they are up to speed, you can switch them over to commission-based compensation. While this may not be the most cost-effective solution at first, it pays off in the long run.


Another way to solve the problem of “subsidizing” new techs is to establish a team-based pay program. Kitty Victor, a business consultant and co-founder of the Masters audiotape subscription service, recommends offering established technicians an incentive for helping new employees get more clients. She notes that the incentive can be money or some other significant reward. This way everyone gets a payoff, and there is a business increase for the salon overall.

For some techs, the amount of money they make can be less important than other benefits you’re able to offer. Such things as medical insurance, flexible schedules, and paid vacations all weigh in favor for a salon. While many salons cannot afford to offer health care programs and other benefits that major corporations do, it is one way that you will be able to put your salon above the rest when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees.

“We operate the salon like we would any other company,” says Wolper. “We offer health care benefits, flextime scheduling, commission with a guarantee, profit-sharing, vacation, and continuous training. We want to make it desirable to work at Hands On.”

Trackman notes, “As a salon owner, I known the importance of a good benefits package. If employees are working on a commission basis, offer an incentive program. If they earn more than a certain amount, then they will get a certain percentage. And salon owners need to offer a retail incentive.”

“When salons offer benefits, it definitely helps,” says Taricco. “Many nail techs are single parents and they have to have health care for their children.” Some smaller salon owners, such as Finger, do not offer health insurance but help set their employees up with an insurance professional who may be able to help them take advantage of group rates.

But the key here is that even if you cannot afford to offer health insurance, you can offer many other benefits at little to no expense to you. Flextime scheduling is a great example of this. Likewise for paid time off. Sometimes, even little things like time off for family events or monthly staff outings help keep people motivated. But the key thing to remember is all of these things are extra benefits, and every extra thing you do for your employees helps to keep their loyalty.

8 Things You Can Do to Cultivate Future Nail Technicians of America

So what are you going to do about the dwindling number of nail technicians in the industry? Are you going to stand there and hope that more people suddenly become interested in the nail industry? Are you going to hope that schools suddenly begin to take more interest in educating students on real-world views of what to expect in a salon? The people we talked to had many great ideas, and some we just came up with on our own. Here, we offer you some ideas on how we can solve this industry problem together.

1. Work with your local schools. Do not simply rely on new techs to know who you are and come to you. Offer to talk to students at cosmetology schools, as well as high schools, about the field of nail technology. Go to career days at the high school. Present the career of nail technology at PTA meetings and to guidance counselors. This will help increase interest in your salon and give them a better idea of the industry in general.

2. Offer mentoring or apprenticeship programs. If your state allows it, consider offering an apprentice program in your salon and teaching your future technicians yourself. Offer to teach classes in cosmetology schools on subjects that aren’t necessarily mandatory for a nail tech license, such as the low-down facts of what to expect when you are a newbie.

3. Act like a corporation; attract like a corporation. Big companies like Microsoft and Arthur Andersen devote entire departments to recruiting new staff. You don’t have to have the resources of Microsoft; you just have to act like you do. Take a booth at a job fair and meet young people starting out in their careers. By advertising constantly, you keep a constant stream of applications coming in so you have a well-supplied pool of people to draw from if someone leaves unexpectedly. Advertise at local schools, in papers, on the Internet, and in-house. Sponsor event that will put your salon name in front of the public eye as a community supporter. Use cosmetology lists from state boards and do your own mailings.

4. Don’t forget benefits. If you are acting like a corporation, don’t forget that one of the major reasons potential employees are attracted to corporations is because they offer benefits. If you have the ability, add one or more of the following to your benefits package: health insurance, flexible schedules, paid time off, profit-sharing or other incentive programs, and child care options. Offering benefits will help attract and kept loyal employees. Offer you employees a referral bonus if they bring a new tech into the salon who stays for a set period of time.

5. Share the wealth … of knowledge. Both work-related and real-life education are added benefits for your employees. Pay for them to attend manufacturer and distributor classes so that they will be able to offer their (and your) clients the latest products and techniques. Bring instructors into the salon that offer life-improvement classes that go beyond work-related training, such as fitness and nutrition, finance, or any other topic that would be of interest of them.

6. Get corny. It works. Make working at your salon fun and cool. Crate an atmosphere where the employees want to come to work every day. Plan functions outside of work to help build relationships and, in turn, loyalty. Let the team decide on a dress code (maybe they’ll come up with a wacky idea, but it will be consistent). Do special events for staff birthday, give them their anniversary off, and give them discounts on salon services for their families.

7. Set a good example. Be realistic. Don’t let discount salons intimidate you. If you constantly worry about it, so will your employees. Picture yourself in a different league altogether than the discount salons. You are not competing for the same clients if you offer quality services from quality technicians.

8. Educate yourself. If you become a better interviewer by asking better open-ended questions and by knowing the qualities that you are actually looking for, you will be in a better position to hire more qualified employees. Remember, hiring decisions are till important, you don’t want to make the mistake of just hiring a warm body because this could create more problems in the long run. You want to hire the best possible people for the job and if you are doing everything else right, you will be able to choose who is best suited for the job.   


5 New Places to Recruit

Think – and recruit – out of the box. We have 98% women in our industry, mostly between the ages of 25.45. That certainly leaves out lots of other people who might find this industry as rewarding as we do. One thing that you can do is to try recruiting people who don’t necessarily fit the “nail technician” stereotype.

1. Recruit men. While there are not many men in the industry, look at the ones who are. The Tom Holcombs, Tom Bachiks, and John Hauks of the world are the best our industry has to offer. Start looking for men who might be looking for a job where they can be more creative.

2. Recruit people who are looking for a second career. The nail industry has been a home to many former nurses, for example, who liked the flexibility of shift work and a hands-on atmosphere of caring for people. Likewise, there are many mothers (and some fathers even) who quit their first careers when they began having children, and now may be looking for a new career that is more flexible than their first.

3. Turn clients into staff. Talk to clients; some of them may think that your job is the coolest. By talking about all the great aspects of the job – the flexibility creativity, person-to-person contract – to your clients, you just might run across someone who is looking for a new career direction. It they are good clients, they might be the perfect addition to your team.

4. Hire the physically challenged.  A nail salon environment is particularly well-suited to someone in a wheelchair, for example. Talk to your local chapter of the America Disability Association about job opportunities at your salon.

5. They’re not “old,” they’re “experienced.” A few years back Northwest Airlines, responding to a lull in job applicants for flight attendants, started to recruit older workers, which was a marked change from the “flying hostess” image of the ’60s and ’70s. However, the move as well received by passengers and the airline developed a new group of high-performing employees. The nail industry may be the next industry for the old workforce to join.

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