Money Matters

Is There Still Something Wrong With Our Schools?

A few years back, we asked the question, “What’s wrong with our schools?” in an article that exposed the industry’s complaints about how we train our professionals. Eight years later; we decided to see what, if anything, had changed.

The topic of education can always get a debate started — whether you’re a salon professional or a politician. But beyond debate, what is being done to address the challenges facing cosmetology schools and their students today? Back in 1992, NAILS talked to several people in the industry, among them salon owners, nail technicians, and school administrators, to see just what was wrong with cosmetology schools and what could be done to solve the problem. We got varying opinions, from having better- trained instructors to having the state boards require more hours for a license.

Eight years later, we decided to revisit the topic and see if any improvements have been made, or whether the complaints remain the same.

“Schools have improved in the last five years,” says Max Matteson, president of Salon Enterprises, which is the parent company of a salon chain and several schools in Grand Rapids, Mich. “More and more schools are switching more tune to areas of customer service rather than just focusing on the exact principle of the technique.”

But Matteson and several others we spoke to made it clear that while the school system has improved, there are still plenty of complaints, and much remains to be done before anyone can say that all of our cosmetology schools are producing highly qualified nail technicians.

So, are the schools the only ones responsible for improving our school system? For the most part, the people we talked to seem to agree that schools are not the only ones at fault. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” says Nancy King, owner of Nail Care in Laurel, Md. “I think it’s a product of the environment of the industry.”

Students Lack Skills...

Although salon owners have no qualms about teaching their newly graduated employees their particular salon style, and in fact expect it, they don’t want to have to teach employees basic techniques that should have been taught in school. And salon owners aren’t the only ones who feel this way.

Maureen Solan, an instructor who teaches continuing education classes for license renewal in Indiana, finds that many who attend her sessions still have lots of questions on basic techniques. “Students should be learning these techniques if they are getting three hours of nothing but manicuring in school,” she says. “Schools are not doing enough one-on-one work with students.”

True, schools are teaching what the state board requires them to, but that is not enough, many argue. And nowadays, technique isn’t everything. It’s also important to have business skills, which many graduates lack. By now, we’ve all heard about the shortage of beauty professionals in our industry (see “Why Is Everybody Leaving?” in September 1999

and “Wanted: A Few Good Techs” in June 2000),

and many feel the poor educational experience is a big part of why licensed nail techs and cosmetologists choose to leave their professions.

Indeed, Jeffi Horn, owner of The Nail Cafe in Encino, Calif., says she’s had such bad luck with recently graduated nail techs that she doesn’t think she’ll hire anyone else out of school again. “Nobody tells students to expect a year before they’re good enough to get return business,” she says. “Schools don’t teach business skills, and new nail techs are totally unprepared on how to get that client back and make her happy.”

...And So Do Instructors

Most states require nail instructors to be licensed cosmetologists who don’t nec­essarily have specialized nail skills or training. Indiana is one of the states with such a requirement, which Diana Bonn, owner of Colour Classiques in Muncie, Ind., finds ridiculous. “A licensed nail tech can’t teach nails, but a cosmetologist can?” she asks.

Students ultimately suffer the consequences of non-specialized instruction. Dawn Lacy, who along with her husband Jay owns Lacy Cosmetology School in Aiken, S.C., says that at one time, she was a manufacturer’s educator and would visit schools. Not only did she find that students were starved for education, she also felt that the instructors, who were primarily cosmetologists, weren’t really interested in nails.

Another problem many voice about instructors is that they simply do not have the salon experience. In some states, cosmetologists and nail techs are only required to be licensed for five years before applying for an instructor’s license.

And although some states do require continuing education hours for instructors, those states are few and far between. “It’s horrifying how few states require continuing education hours,” says Larry Walthers, president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC).

Nails Take a Backseat to Hair

A major complaint we heard is that schools just don’t seem to pay much attention to nail students. Francine Matthews of York, Pa., attended a school in her area in order to renew her license, but ended up dropping out after a month. Her reason? “Nails were not taken as seriously as hair. Even the welcome textbook I got was geared toward people in the hair industry,” she says. “Not one mention was made of nail techs.”

After asking her instructor too many questions and receiving the same reply, “I’m not sure because I’m a hairdresser,” Matthews opted to leave the school. “I was paying money to go to this school and the instructor wanted me to go across the street to a distributor to get continuing education,” she says. Matthews says she’s planning on going to another school, but will do plenty of research before deciding on another one.

Is the lack of attention toward nail students justified? Jackie Savage, school director of Ultima College of Cosmetology in Westminster, Colo., thinks so. “A lot of the schools’ main focus is on cosmetology, not nails. But that’s how it’s always been,” she says. Savage says that is precisely the reason why her school recently revamped its nail tech curriculum to include business classes and gel techniques, for example.

So if nail students are not given as much attention as cosmetology students, why aren’t there more nails-only schools out there? According to Mark Gross, CEO of the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS), most states require students to be taught at a cosmetology school. And others believe that running a nail school is simply not economical. “I couldn’t open a school with my 14 nail students and survive,” says Gari Dawn Tingler, a top nail competitor and owner of Paris II Educational Center in Kansas City, Mo. Indeed, all of the schools we talked to only have a handful of nail students at any given time, and one school had one student who had only been in the program for three weeks.

Not Enough School Hours

Currently, Utah is the only state that does not require a license for nail techs. And while the rest of the states do require some sort of licensing, the number of educational hours students must attain varies. That lack of uniformity is unsettling to many who feel that even 500 hours are not enough to prepare students for the realities of a career in nails. “In my state [Missouri], 390 hours are needed for a license,” Tingler says. “I think we need at least 500. We’re sending out people who don’t even know how to use a drill.”

Although it is heartening that some states (such as Maryland) have recently upped their hours, again, many say, the hours are not enough. King was instrumental in raising Maryland’s educational hours from 100 to 250. She actually vied for more hours, but she says the schools wanted none of that, since that would mean instructors would have to take additional educational classes in order to teach those extra hours.

For years, there has been talk of developing a uniform national standard for cosmetology curriculum and hours, but the problem is getting all 50 state boards of cosmetology to agree on a single standard. “I’d love to have all the states have the same number of hours, but people just can’t seem to agree on the number of hours students should be taking. Not even associations agree,” Walthers says. Walthers, who is a hairstylist, says he’s been hearing talk of having some sort of uniformity since 1960.

Still, the industry has joined together to provide some sort of cohesiveness. NIC offers a written cosmetology test that is currently used in 39 states. The test comes in different divisions, including one for nails. In addition, the association developed a practical test. Seventeen states are currently using both the practical and written exam.

And the Cosmetology Advancement Foundation (CAF) came out with a set of skill standards for hairstylists two years ago. The standards include “soft skills,” meaning interpersonal communication between client and stylist as well as reading comprehension. Matteson, who’s a board member of the CAF, says the standards have been adopted in several textbooks that are widely used in schools.

State Boards Are Old School

“State boards are a joke,” says Darrell Camp, owner of Mount Vernon Beauty School in Mount Vernon, Wash. “They have nothing to do with competency. The state board curriculum is adopted by bureaucrats with minimal input from practitioners and educators.”

Camp says state board regulations are for the most part burdensome, outdated, and serve no major educational purpose. He says Washington’s curriculum focuses only on practical skills, safety, and sanitation, but includes nothing on business or communication skills.

And in South Carolina, schools are required to teach sculptured nails, nail tips, and nail wraps among other techniques, but the state board makes no mention of using a drill or airbrush — both of which are widely used in salons.

Walthers, however, feels the state board is not to blame. “A lot of times it’s not the state boards’ fault, but rather the legislators,” he says. “Sometimes schools and cosmetologists lose their focus when comes to the state board. They’re there to protect the consumer, not to protect the schools or cosmetologists.”

For the most part, he says state boards are doing the job they’ve been appointed to do. He believes that the only way state board requirements can be changed is if the industry gets behind the state board and tells it what they want.

Schools and Industry Should Work Together

Schools are not the only ones that need to improve. Salon owners and manufacturers also have to do their part to help.

With the current shortage of nail techs and cosmetologists, salon owners are busier than ever trying to accommodate clients, and many may find that as an excuse not to get involved with the schools. But if salon owners are looking for people to fill those open positions, then they have no other choice.

“Salon owners need to go to schools and give students a clue of what to expect once they start working in a salon,” says Kristi Valenzuela, a nail tech and mentor based in Michigan. “They need to talk about things like client expectations and client loyalty.”

And if the salon can’t come to the school, then the school should be allowed to go to the salon. Bonn, for example, says she has a good rapport with the schools in her area. One school even takes students on field trips to her salon so they can see what a “real” salon looks like. Bonn says she’d like to go to local schools to advise and teach students, but her state won’t allow it.

Manufacturers and educators also need to become more involved. Tingler, who is a manufacturer’s educator, says her company is always willing to go to schools and talk to students, but there are plenty of others who aren’t as eager to.

Sue Saulter, an instructor at Ultima College of Cosmetology in Westminster, Colo., says her school has a hard time bringing in educators for certain products. “They tell us that if we don’t carry their product in our school, then they can’t bring in an educator,” Saulter says. “That bothers me because I instruct students to also use other products than the ones we use.”

Working Toward Improvement

Although there may be many complaints, there have also been vast improvements — from all sides — in our educational system. Many problems of the past, such as loan default rates and school closures, still exist, but they are not as bad as they were before.

“Schools are closing, but others are opening as well,” Gross says. “And the loan default rate is still a problem, but it’s nowhere near as much of a problem as it was in the past. The government is doing a better job of collecting the money.”

Organizations are also realizing the need to produce skilled graduates. The American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) and The Salon Association (TSA) recently formed a Joint Task Force to discuss and propose new ideas and innovative thinking on the relationship between independent salons and cosmetology schools. Their first meeting produced “Top 10 lists” comprised of ideas for both schools and salons such as offering on-the-job training, making salon career information available to students, and developing an internship program.

And NACCAS has gotten in on the action as well. The association offers the American National Vocational Qualification (ANVQ), which is an advanced certification for cosmetology students and professionals. The program certifies advanced skills in hair dressing, business skills, and other skills essential in today’s workplace.

NACCAS introduced the program after hearing one too many complaints from salon owners and cosmetology professionals that graduates did not always have the advanced skills needed to perform well in a salon. Eight cosmetology schools currently offer the program, and more than 550 students have become ANVQ certified.

Nail techs are also making it a point to .involve themselves in the schools. Valenzuela, for one, has been mentoring students for two years in schools throughout Michigan. Her reason? “There’s a lack of mentoring and motivation in our schools, and I didn’t have this when I was a student,” she says.

And more and more schools are realizing the importance of offering business classes to complement the basic techniques students learn in school.

Tari Pearce, an educator for Maly’s Beauty Supply in Michigan, and soon-to-be director of a Maly’s-owned school scheduled to open in Michigan in the fall, says she plans to offer a mentoring program as well as classes on how to succeed in the business.

And schools are not just offering business classes, they’re also offering advanced education. Tingler says her school provides advanced nail procedures and she requires 15 days of hands- on practice before a student is allowed to touch a real nail.

But the fact is, much still remains to be done. More schools need to realize the importance of offering classes that teach about the realities of today’s salons.

Classes on communicating with clients and fellow employees, retailing and sales, and deciding whether to become an independent contractor or a booth renter are still needed in more schools.

In-salon externships, as Camp suggests, would positively, “serve the needs of the student and the salon simultaneously. Not only would students be better prepared to meet the demands of the future, salons would also get an opportunity to see the students’ non-technical skills such as attitude and attendance.

And the curricula currently employed in schools should be updated to reflect today’s innovations and techniques. Why would a state board require students to do a manicure with the moons showing if that technique hasn’t been offered in salons in years?

If nail techs and salon owners are looking for change in requirements and curricula, they have to be willing to step up and make the first move. “Salon owners need to tell the state boards what they want and don’t want,” Gross says. “When the school goes to do it, it’s said it’s a vested interest”

More importantly, the finger pointing must stop. Salon owners need to stop pointing their fingers at the schools, and the schools need to do the same. It’s obvious that one entity is not to blame. Rather, the problem lies in that the industry let these problems slide for far too long. But there is hope. “It took a long time for the industry to get to this point,” King says. “It’s going to take a lot longer to get it corrected and more functional on a higher level.”

These Schools Get an A+

Although there’s plenty of talk about schools that are not doing their part to churn out well-prepared cosmetologists and nail techs, the schools we talked to all seem to take their roles as educators very seriously.

Lacy Cosmetology School in Aiken, S.C., is one school that goes the extra mile According to owners Jay and Dawn Lacy their main priority is teaching the students to be salon-ready And to the Lacys, being salon-ready doesn’t mean just teaching the basics. “I constantly tell my students that they have to have good business steps,” says Dawn, who is one of three nail instructors at the school.

The school is actually run more like a salon, and even has a substantial retail area that is in the process of being expanded. Besides offering hair and nail services, students ring up clients, book appointments, and answer phones. Before graduating, students are given a business class that includes lessons on customer service, business-building tactics, and sanitation. And Dawn makes sure to stress the importance of retailing.

Dawn also gives students demonstrations using products from several manufacturers, and the school recently branched off to become a distributor for several products that local distributors do not carry. “On numerous occasions we found it difficult to get products on demand. Nail products are not a priority in our area,” Dawn says. “We want our students to be able to continue to use these products and have no problems getting them.”

Mount Vernon Beauty School in Mount Vernon, Wash., believes in having students face the realities of a career in cosmetology Owner Dairell Camp regularly takes students on field trips to various salons, where they are shown what work is really like. “I ask owners to dump their dirty laundry and tell the truth,” Camp says.” lf there’s a negative aspect, the student should know beforehand,”

The school offers 600 education hours, 100 more than the Washington state board requires. Those extra hours give the school time to offer lessons on resume writing, client acquisition and retention, and communication, among other business skills. The school also has a student council that Camp says keeps him and other personnel apprised of what it’s like to be a student Camp also makes it a point to regularly have manufacturer educators come in and talk to students.

And the school makes sure to keep in touch with students after their graduation. During the first 18 months students are out of school, Camp sends them letters to see how they’re doing. The letters are also sent out to salons, and Camp says this helps him assess what the school is doing right and what it needs to work on. “Every one of my policies that are student-oriented toward their long-term goals are based on what happens in a salon,” Camp says.

Top 10 List for Salons

1 Join together with schools Establish positive relationships with schools based on common needs and mutual respect.

2 Recommend beauty school as a career option Encourage qualified people to enter our industry. Offer to do a career day presentation at your local high school. Promote the many positive aspects of the profession.

3 Offer on-the-job training. Arrange for students, and prospective students to “job shadow” in a real working salon.

4 Provide technical classes for students Offer to do technical classes at the school. Always remember that evening students need technical classes too

5 Provide salon career information for students. Submit salon portfolios that the school would make available for students to review. Be knowledgeable about state board issues.

6 Provide opportunity for graduates. Our graduates aren’t done learning; they’re just beginning. They need advanced education and guidance to be successful. Provide a career path for graduates to continue life-long learning.

7 Develop an internship program. Allow graduates to understand there is a system in place when they join your salon team. Don’t expect to wing it with the graduate. Give them a solid foundation.

8. Visit schools on a regular basis. Take an interest in the students. Allow them to see you in the school throughout their education, not just around graduation.

9. Help schools recruit teachers. Teachers are an important element in all schools. Help schools find the right candidates.

10. Maintain and update an interview manual for interviewing students Don’t leave the interview to chance. Be thorough and focused. Conduct the interview professionally and with much forethought.

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