The industry’s revolving door; through which nail technicians leave as quickly as they come, is a reflection of some deeper problems that hinder the industry’s growth and damage its reputation.

After 23 years in the nail industry, Judy Parks’ is interviewing for jobs in the corporate world. Her mood swinging between enthusiastic and wistful, she tries to explain why site’s leaving the nail industry. “In the beginning, doing nails was a new thing, a fresh idea, and everyone wanted to do it. I got a lot of respect and people knew I was making good money,” she re­ members. “Now, as I interview with salons I find people view me as flaky and unreliable because I’m a nail tech.”

Unable to find a good salon or to build much of a client following in the past year since relocating to a new state, Parks has lost heart and has decided to pursue another career. “I’m looking outside this industry both because I want something different and because I need to earn a living,” she explains. “And my dad keeps pointing out that I need a job where 1 can put my time in and work toward retirement. He’s right. I’m 41 and I don’t have much of anything.”

Statistics suggest that the average person will change careers anywhere from three to live times in her professional lifetime. That’s all well and good, and may partly explain why the average time in the industry of a NAILS reader has increased only 12 months in the past seven years- from. 4.8 years in 1992 to 5.8 in 1999. But what those statistics don’t explain is why this industry has such a hard time holding onto its own when there’s such an overwhelming demand from both salon owners and their clients for nail technicians.

No one knows how many people quit the industry each year, but everyone from nail instructors to salon owners, from association leaders to distributors, speculate that the attrition rate is high. “When I was teaching nails, I found that out of every 10 students who started a class, only half ended up working,” says Lianne Koziol, owner of The Little Nail Shoppe of Rehoboth (Mass.) and nail division director for RG Shakour. As for how many completed their first year, much less their fifth, she didn’t even want to guess.

It’s easy to blame the losses on the young women who enter nails as their first career only to move on as they mature and their interests change, or on women who reach the “baby years” and decide to stay home and raise their families. Both are excellent reasons, and ones that do cause people to leave, but they certainly aren’t the only — or even the top two — people move on. Some, like Parks, are discouraged or disillusioned.

“The beauty industry, like all other     industries, has never experienced a booming economy for so long,” says Larry Gaynor, president and CEO of The Nailco Group (Farmington Hills,Mich.). “Our industry has always been recession-resistant, but the funny thing is, is it good-times resistant?

“There are too many opportunities today for teenagers and young adults, and the beauty industry is very low on the list of their job choices. We need to raise the self-esteem, the income potential, and the education standards,” he says.

Do You Have to Leave So Soon?

To try and pin industry attrition on just a few industry problems would be not only unfair, but untrue. As Max Matteson, president of the Cosmetology Advancement Foundation points out, “It’s a mixed bag of reasons and personal problems that reflect what’s going on in society today. It’s a child care problem, it’s a child care problem, it’s a benefits problem.”

To back his point, Matteson cites a recent Procter & Gamble study of why hairstylists leave the industry. “The study found that when people started in the industry their expectations were that there was an opportunity to make good money, be creative and learn the latest in the technical and fashion worlds, have flexible schedules, and health, medical, and life insurance benefits,” he says. “Their reasons for dissatisfaction were lower-than- expected wages, physically and mentally stressful working conditions, working on weekends, and long hours.”

These findings reflect what many speculate are the reasons nail technicians leave the industry as well. Here, a few industry experts discuss what they believe are the most common motivators for moving on.

Inadequate Training And Skills Upon Graduation. This one has been a sore spot between salons and schools for years, but there’s no denying that most nail technicians graduate school woefully unprepared to begin working in the salon. “They don’t even have the fundamentals down when they leave school,” says Terri Taricco, corporate manager for RG Shakour.

Not enough money. “In 1978, nail techs were getting $20-$25 for a set of ails, and what are they getting now?” asks Mark Gross, CEO of the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences.” A salon professional’s income is based on commission, so how much you make is based on the cost of the service and the speed at which you an do it. Nails have gone so far down in rice that techs’ ability to make money is greatly reduced.” “I have watched some of my oldest association drop out of the industry because they can’t make a decent living anymore,” Taricco adds. “Product prices, rent, and utilities continue to go up every year, but fill prices (the staple of most techs’ income) have stayed the same for the past 10 years.” And, some would argue, actually have dropped. (NAILS’ own study shows an increase in the average fill price of only 3% since 1993.)

Most new nail technicians don’t have the luxury of time when they enter the workforce — they need to earn a living now. But with stagnant prices and slower service working speeds out of school, it’s almost impossible to earn a living wage. “If she’s doing $18 fills that take her two hours and she gets a 50% commission, she makes $4.50 an hour,” explains Koziol. “Then if she has to buy products on top of that, how can she earn a living?”

Work-related injuries and allergies.  Several technicians we asked said they had to leave the industry because of product allergies and carpal tunnel syndrome. “My doctor told me I would probably have arthritis in my neck if I didn’t stop,” says Paulette Kevlin, who quit nails to open a full-service salon, Look Smart, in Clearwater, Fla. “I also had constant irritation of my sinuses and respiratory tract. These are things the industry has to get a handle on; I don’t think as much is being done as should be.”

Expectations Too High.   “Today’s generation wants it now, and it takes awhile to make money in this business because you don’t leave school working fast enough,” Gross says. Regardless of how fast you work, few nail technicians go to a salon that already has a full nail clientele just waiting for her.

“The younger generation is so used to having everything they want handed to them that they just don’t know how to handle it when there’s a learning experience,” says Marlene Bridge, owner of Elegant Distributing as well as a manufacturer’s educator and chairwoman of The Americas Division for the National Cosmetology Association. “They get frustrated because schools teach what students need to know to pass the state board exam, but not always what they need to know to survive. Kids today are very intelligent and have high expectations, so when someone doesn’t like their work, they don’t know how to accept that. They need real-life scenarios in school and education on how to build a clientele, how to retail, how to build a service menu, and how to sell add-ons.”

“Many believe that after going to beauty school they can build a clientele very quickly,” Gaynor agrees. “But that’s only the beginning. It takes months and years of practice and perfecting the skills, and many don’t want to take the time. The glamour of doing nails is quickly lost when the dollars don’t come in.”

The issue is less about money, though, than about self-confidence and self-esteem, says Barb Wetzel, owner of NailSplash in La Grange, Ill. She cites her sister as an example. “She went to school and worked part-time in my salon for awhile, but she never did work full-time in a salon she says. “She just never got to the point where she felt that her skills were ‘salon- worthy.’ She, like many other new nail techs, thought that doing nails would be easy and fun.”

All the little things. While these are four “big” reasons people leave, Wetzel and others note that there are many others. “What I’ve heard from many nail technicians who’ve quit is that their com­ plaints with the salon industry included no insurance, night and weekend hours, long days, and unpredictable income.” And even though each of these problems invite some creative troubleshooting opportunities —buying insurance through an association, working split shifts, and negotiating a base salary while building a clientele — together they sometimes can seem insurmountable.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

The impact of industry turnover, which Matteson terms “devastating,” is felt both inside and out of the industry. “We have approximately 240,000 beauty salons in the United States, and we’re anticipating that the enrollment in beauty schools will drop,” he says. “Add that to our findings that only 50%-51% of graduates actually get a license, and it’s not good.

“We can say each year that the industry should grow 2.1% per year because of population growth,” he continues. “If we figure out the attrition from the industry combined with lower school enrollments, we’re going to have a shortfall of about 50,000 hairdressers by the year 2000.” While Matteson doesn’t: have projections for nail technicians, any salon owner will attest to the difficulty of finding good nail technicians.

“Turnover is not good for any industry,” Gaynor asserts. “It creates uncertainty, frustrated clients, and low self-esteem. Salon owners become fed up with nail technicians, and some are eliminating nail service altogether. I can’t tell you how many requests we get for nail technicians, and we can’t fill any of them.”


“We have a recruiter working just on recruiting nail people, and I know there are openings for nail technicians all over. It took us five years to get a nail department going,” says Michael Coe, president of Gene Juarez salons and spas based in Seattle, Wash. “Turnover is probably one of the biggest reasons for booth rental and value-priced nail salons.”

According to Bridge, these problems feed on each other to create a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps nail technicians from developing a professional reputation and from gaining the respect they deserve from other salon professionals such as hairstylists and estheticians. “Nails is not viewed as a career be­ cause people are in and out so fast,” Bridge says.

“I left the industry after my son was born. I would like to go back when my children get into school if I can find a place that will let me work five hours a day. I’ve maintained my license and I do my own nails and my aunt’s to keep my skills up.

I became a nail technician because my mom started having me get my nails done when I was a young girl and I always enjoyed it. Just being with people and doing something for others where there wasn’t a lot of pressure was very enjoyable. And, the pay was good!”—Jodi Mulligan, Altimont, Mich,

“I left the industry because I developed very bad respiratory allergies to the products. I took more classes and became a clinical esthetician. I am now working in a women’s wellness clinic where I do glycolic peels, waxing, and pedicures and manicures. But if I do more than one manicure or pedicure a day I start running into problems again. I have a plum job now that just couldn’t get any better.”--Patti Smith, Mississauga, Ontario


I opened a nail salon back when people in this area were charging $30-$40 for a full set of nails, but the prices have dropped to about $20. When I first started out it was myself and four employees and the salon was profitable. After two years the profits went down and I had to make the salon full-service with hair, but that didn’t work either I really enjoyed the work, but I couldn’t make enough money to survive.”--— Rita Howard, Houston, Texas

At the last few salons I’ve worked at I’ve had a variety of problems that have me thinking seriously about leaving nails. I’ve had offers from a couple of different businesses that have nothing to do with nails, and I’m really thinking about of the prima donna syndrome want to be past the back stabbing, the lack of camaraderie and teamwork, and the lack of respect for others and their properly”--Carol*, Florida

No Quick Fixes

Understanding the causes and effects of nail industry turnover is much simpler than identifying the solutions, which would involve changes in the schools, in the salons, and in die industry drop-outs themselves. First, many feel schools need to do a better job educating prospective nail technicians on what they can expect from their new career, and what it will take on their part to succeed.

Terri Lundberg, owner of the Nail Technician Mentoring Institute in Eagan, Minn., and a school instructor, says students ask all the time what they can expect to make their first year in the industry, and she often finds herself bursting their bubble. “Some schools don’t tell them and then students gain no understanding of how hard that first year is,” she says.

Nor do students often leave school with even the basic technical skills they need to survive. “I probably did four full sets while I was in school,” remembers Tammy Durkee, a former nail technician in Missoula, Mont. “I wasn’t taught to treat something that I loved as a business. It was like having a babysitter that doesn’t watch you; they would just tell us what to do and then disappear. I know that experience is a great teacher, but if you don’t get much out of school, you’re not very marketable.”

All the blame for this can hardly be placed on the schools, as the required education hours are much less than what a technician needs to master all the theory and practical work. Like it or not, a school that doesn’t focus on preparing for the state board exams is a school with a dim future.

By the same token, Koziol calls for states, at a minimum, to make it easier for experienced nail technicians to become nail instructors. “In Massachusetts, you have to be a licensed cosmetologist to teach nails,” she notes. “I think if nail technicians were teaching the classes and helping to update the programs, students would be better prepared and you’d start seeing happier people who last longer in this industry.”

Other steps schools could take include placing more emphasis on business-building tools such as how to build a clientele, retailing, and customer service skills. “I’ve offered to go into the schools in my area and give real-world talks to the students on what clients expect and how to build a clientele, but only one or two schools have taken me up on it.” Kelvin notes. 

Schools can, and should, work to develop partnerships with local salons. These partners could agree to host student days or evenings where students are invited to tour the salon, observe services, get technical and business- building tips, and overall gain a better understanding of the industry they’re preparing for.

Salons Have to Help Themselves

“I don’t buy the argument that people coming into this industry are not serious,” Coe asserts. “I think that’s a cop-out for salon owners. To build a nail business, you’ve got to manage it and work at it. You have to take care of your people and make sure there is career growth and career opportunities. I think perhaps a lot of salon owners hire nail artists and set them in the corner. Very frankly, to improve the nail department you have to get in there and put in as much time and energy and management systems that you would put in elsewhere.

“A lot of industry people say there is something wrong with the young generation. But I think salon owners have to realize these young people are OK. The problem is that salons haven’t changed enough to meet expectations.

“We devote a huge amount of corporate resources on quality and timing be­ cause the appointment schedule and pricing are most important. We think that between tips and wages, they should be making at least $22,000 a year or they’re not getting a living wage,” Coe adds. “Then you have to have a carefully crafted compensation program that moves them forward so they can earn more money.”

It sounds expensive, and the initial eight-week training program certainly is. However, Gene Juarez passes on future raises to the customer with a sliding scale pricing system that’s based on a nail technician’s experience, training, and client base. Explains Coe, “Our starting price for a manicure is $20, but some of our most senior technicians are up to $30, so over time their income can grow.”

As a multi-million dollar salon chain, much of what Gene Juarez offers is obviously out of reach for most salon owners. However, there are many things salons can’t afford not to be doing that they aren’t. First, all salons should offer some type of training or mentoring program. Pair senior technicians with newbies and figure out some compensation program that works for every­ one. Perhaps it means dedicating the salon’s retail commissions to an education fund that pays the senior technician an hourly wage for the time she spends one-on-one with the new tech. Or perhaps it’s just part of the senior tech’s job description and a part of her higher pay base.

For those salon owners afraid of training new techs only to lose them soon afterwards,Lunclberg recommends creating a structured training program and putting a dollar value on it. “Within the first year, they’d have to pay back the dollar value of that training if they leave; otherwise, they’re working it off over time.” Other options include programs like those offered at her advanced training center or RG Shakotir’s Nail Nut University. While still sparse, more and more continuing education programs are cropping up around the country and can be a valuable aspect of salon training programs.

“Education makes for a more motivated technician who does better nails faster over a much shorter lime period,” Lundberg notes.

Salons also need to act as a resource even when the salon itself can’t offer much in the way of benefits. First, play up the positive aspects of the nail industry by offering employees flexible scheduling. Schedule the workstation to cover your salon’s open hours, not a single technician’s schedule. If it takes two or three technicians to cover a week at one workstation, you may have more work creating the initial schedules, but everyone will be happier in the end.

Have employees who need health-care? Post a list of industry associations (and their contact numbers) that offer group health insurance. And talk to your salon’s accountant about creating a Medical Savings Account program that would allow employees to put pretax income into a special account that they can use to pay medical deductibles and co-pays, for example.

With some creativity and research, most salons could dramatically improve their benefits packages with little associated cost, especially when compared to the money they lose by not being able to keep a full staff.

It All Comes Down to Them

Still, schools and salons can only do so much. As with everything else in life, it’s the individual’s responsibility to make or break her nail career. “Part of the problem is that our industry attracts the wrong type to begin with,” Wetzel asserts. “Many students see nail technology almost as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme instead of a career. The instant it gets hard, requires effort or motivation or discipline, they blame the schools or the industry instead of looking to themselves. Fven on the industry message boards you can see the pattern. A lech will ask a question about a technical problem and get upset when the answer is too long, or too complicated, or involves any effort on their part. They just want a short, pat answer to make their problem go away.

“This career demands creative thinkers who can work on their own, with their own drive and initiative and problem-solving abilities,” she concludes. “They need a desire to learn and continue learning, not to mention excellent communication and people skills.”

And how do we get these people? “There is no magic; there have to be the dollars to do this. This industry needs to charge a price that lets salons put together a compensation package and a career path,” Matteson says. “Meanwhile, we’re out there cutting places and wondering why the turnover is so high. And, we’re only getting the people attracted to a wage of $6-$8 an hour.” These are not the ones, he needn’t say, with the drive and people skills needed to propel the industry forward.


--Kim Wanderling, La Grange Park, III.

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