Business Management

Wanted: A Few Good Nail Techs

There’s a serious shortage of well-trained nail technicians, but don’t wait around for cosmetology schools to solve it. Salon owners need to get involved in the campaign to recruit —- and groom — a new generation.

Does your salon have enough business to add another nail technician, but you can’t find anyone to fill the position? When nail technicians leave your salon, is it difficult to find new ones? While it’s small comfort, you’re not alone.

“We advertised for 60 days and we didn’t get one applicant,” remembers Paula Gilmore, owner of The Nail Suite in San Mateo, Calif. “We couldn’t even find people who had a nail technician license.” Gilmore and her partner, Stephanie Bricker, then owners of Tips Nail Salon in Redwood Shores, Calif., were unable to re- staff after losing several nail technicians at once. Unable to service a large part of their clientele, they closed the salon and moved to a smaller location nearby.

According to the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences (NACCAS) Job Demand Survey released earlier this year, 72% of salon owners seeking to fill positions in 1996 had difficulty finding qualified applicants. Additionally, three out of four salon owners reported having enough business to expand, but they couldn’t find staff to fill the positions. NACCAS found there was an average of 1.8 job openings per salon, and that salons typically replace one of every three salon workers each year.

“We have a shortage of professionals in every area of our industry,” asserts Connie Barrett, president of Tressa and of the Cosmetology Advancement Foundation (CAF). CAF is an industry organization dedicated to advancing the cosmetology industry as a profession. Part of the shortage stems from the fact that the supply of nail technicians cannot keep up with the demand for their services.

Barrett blames much of the industry’s staffing woes on a poor perception of the industry. “Our industry has a problem as a whole reaching out to the public and letting them know what we can deliver,” she explains. “One of the things we have to do is let people know there’s employment and there’s no limitation on income. We haven’t gotten the message out that the cosmetologist who works hard makes more than the average college graduate.

“I think sometimes we recruit people who go through cosmetology or nail school for all the wrong reasons, and then they don’t stay in the industry,” Barrett says. She estimates that as many as 60% of the people who complete school leave the industry before they find their first job or even take the licensing exam.

Obviously, a lot of good people do succeed in the industry, but not enough to meet the demands of a growing clientele. The shortage is projected to get worse as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics projects the nail industry will be the 12th fastest- growing industry in the next 10 years. It’s up to industry professionals — nail technicians and salon owners - to cul­tivate tomorrow’s generation of nail technicians through better recruiting and then create school and salon environments in which they can thrive. And clearly it’s not enough to rely on high school counsellors and parents to encourage young people to consider a cosmetology career.

Cultivating a New Generation of Nail Technicians

To help ease the shortage of salon professionals, CAF is stepping up its Careers in Cosmetology campaign. For several years CAF has offered brochures on careers in cosmetology to school counsellors, cosmetology schools, and salon owners. Now, the organization is becoming even more proactive in its efforts to enhance the industry’s image for those who could promote it to school guidance counsellors, teachers, and parents.

“This past June we exhibited at the PTA convention in Kansas City, and we had working hairstylists and nail technicians demonstrating some of the things we do in our industry,” Barrett says. “We were doing haircuts and trims, nail polish changes and nail art, and other quick services that gave people a sample of what we really do. We use successful people working in our industry as role models. They demonstrate services while they talk about what their career has done for them — both as personal fulfilment and financial rewards.”

In October, CAF exhibited at the American Guidance Counselors Association convention, where 5,000 school counselors gathered. To promote the industry, CAF depends on volunteer spokespersons like Alethea Eatman, owner of Nail Techniques, The Business Resource Center, in Cleveland, Ohio. Eatman read a story about CAF earlier this year and contacted the group to find out how she could become involved in promoting the industry.

“I saw how much the industry lacked in terms of educating people on a business level such as how to start and manage a business,” Eatman explains. “People would come into the industry for two, maybe three months, and then go get a job outside the field because they couldn’t make an income.”

Eatman represented the nail industry at the guidance counsellors’ convention. “Right now people think of the beauty industry as an alternative, not a serious career,” she says. If counsellors could provide information on it as a career, I think that would help create some interest.”

CAF has just completed a slide presentation that is available for counselors, cosmetology instructors, and salon owners. The show, called “Field of Dreams,” promotes careers in all the cosmetology disciplines including nails .Next year, CAF will intensify its outreach efforts by partnering with the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) and BBSI to develop a cosmetology scholarship program.

“The idea is that schools would donate $7 million to $9 million on scholarships and BBSI would fund a national PR campaign and an 800 number people can call for information and an application. CAF would help administer the program and monitor the recipients from the time they request an application to their eventual employment in the industry,” Barrett explains. “Salons must get involved in this because the scholarship program will require the references of two salon owners.” Applicants will also have to have the recommendation of the sponsoring school as well as a high school diploma or GED certificate, and they will have to write an essay about why they want to enter the beauty industry. “All of these initiatives will ensure, we hope, that we get the right candidates for the right reasons,” she adds.

Eventually, Barrett envisions salon owners becoming CAF advocates, and she says CAF hopes to develop posters and static clings for windows promot­ing careers in cosmetology in 1998. “Salon owners have the power to change the retention rate of cosmetology school graduates, but we need a major national initiative and salon involvement in every community,” says Barrett.

Salons Can Help Spread the Word

Myth: “I don’t have the expertise to counsel anyone on a career. Besides, I work long hours and don’t have the time.”

Reality: You are probably the best advocate for the nail industry, and a little effort goes a long way. No one knows the power of word-of-mouth referrals better that nail technicians and salon owners.

Shari Finger, owner of Finger’s Nail Studio in W. Dundee, Ill., and a board member of the Nails Industry Association, represents the nail industry at her local high school hosts a career day. “Businesspeople throughout the community go in and show students what happens in their business. I talk about nail care and the nail industry, what it’s like working in the salon,” she explains.

Finger also has become involved with another high school’s new program that places students in temporary jobs in a profession they’ve expressed interest in.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to bring someone into a professionally run salon so they can see what the industry is about firsthand,” she says.

Finger already has reaped the benefits of encouraging high school students — one of her best nail technicians is a high school senior who completed her nail education and was licensed through her high school’s work program. “She’s a great nail technician who is really going to succeed in her chosen field,” Finger says. Because of this student’s success, Finger says her high school recently signed a contract with the beauty school she attended to send other work program students to that beauty school.

Keeping What We Already Have

Myth: “If beauty schools can’t produce decent nail technicians who will stick with their career, it’s not my problem.”

Reality: Let’s face it: The beauty industry has a dismal retention rate of new graduates, and the blame lies equally with the students, schools, and salons. “People go into school thinking they’re going to go into a salon and have a ready-made clientele asking, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you,’” says Debbie Mack, educational director for nail technology for Pivot Point International in Chicago.

Instead, students graduate unprepared to work on paying clients because they are still too unskilled and too slow. “Schools aren’t in touch enough with the salon realities - that it’s not acceptable to take four hours to do a full set,” says Diane Laird, an instructor with the School of Nail Design in Salem, N.H.

Salon owners and school instructors unanimously agree that salons and schools need to partner with each other to provide a bridge for new nail technicians from school to the salon. Earlier this year Laird formally developed a partnership program that she calls “Salon Realities.” “We now do mentoring in the salon where students can see firsthand how fast they have to be and all the other things they have to do besides nails,” she says. The school is set up like a salon, and students have to bring in at least 10 new clients to graduate. “They have to book appointments in an appointment book and confirm them, and they have to do the service within a prescribed time limit,” Laird explains.

The School of Nail Design has also partnered with several local salons to help prepare students for working in a salon. “We have a mentoring program where students spend time in a variety of salons during the last two weeks of school. It gives them the chance to see how a salon operates, and lets them get a feel for which environment they’re most comfortable in,” Laird explains. Students jump into the salon action by answering phones and sweeping floors as they observe and absorb the salon environment Laird also makes sure all the nail instructors visit salons regularly to stay in touch with what salons need and what’s going on in the industry.

“Salon owners need to get involved in the schools,” says LaCinda Headings, an instructor with Xenon International -School in Wichita, Kan. “Get to know the nail instructor in your local school and offer to help however you can. If you think the technicians coming out of school work too slowly, then offer to teach a class on speed techniques,” she suggests. Salon owners also can offer to do customer service seminars, retailing classes, technician and client interaction presentations — anything that enhances students’ skills.

While new technicians need to accept that it takes time to build a clientele and an income in this industry, salons have to give something in order to get the best technicians, says Mack. “The small salon can’t afford to offer full health benefits or to pay for all continuing education, but they could pay for half of their continuing education classes or a part of their health insurance. If you can’t offer health insurance, improve the compensation package.”

“If you can’t do that,” continues Mack, “you can at least outline ways you’re going to help them build their business. If the salon owner says, Tm going to help you build up a clientele by putting these fliers on car windshields, doing a cross promotion with the business next door, and placing this ad offering a discount in the newspaper,’ she is way ahead of the salon owner who just tells the new-hire, ‘You get all the walk-ins.’”

Flexible scheduling is another “benefit” salons can offer. “It’s no longer realistic to demand technicians work the hours you want them to,” Mack adds. “And actually, you can benefit from flexible scheduling because the technicians who work shorter hours are going to want to maximize their time by seeing as many clients as they can while they’re working.”

It’s an Employees’ Market

Adding yet another responsibility— recruiting and motivating tomorrow’s nail technicians — to your to-do list might seem like the last straw. “Does every salon owner who needs nail technicians have to go to a school to teach students to be employees?” asks one salon owner. “Do we have to give them everything just to get them to work in our salon?”

The answer is no, you don’t have to. But if you want the best nail technicians for your salon and you want the industry to become more professional, the answer is, you’d better.

Take Action

College Graduate Awareness Program

  • Aggressively market to those individuals who have been part of corporate America’s downsizing trend.
  • Salon professionals need to educate their clients about cosmetology as a career option for themselves and for their family members.

Peer-to-Peer Training

  • The industry needs to promote the importance, availability, and opportunities for continuing education
  • Educate salon professionals on how to raise their prices without losing clients.


  • Creative employee compensation programs are essential to attracting today’s youth to the industry.
  • Legislation needs to be passed that requires students to have a high school degree or general education degree (GEO) before entering cosmetology school.
  • A referral program that would assist salon owners in hiring cosmetology school students as apprentices and interns needs to be developed.

Debbie Mack is the educational director for Pivot Point International in Chicago.

  1. The first step in evaluating a school is to make an appointment with the admission department. On your way to the appointment, note how long it takes you to get there. Is there a lot of traffic? Can you make it to school in time for class if you’re coming from work?

Your evaluation starts out-side the school. Is the building well-maintained? Are the bushes trimmed, and the parking lot maintained? The way a school maintains its exterior is a good indicator of what you’ll find inside.

How are you greeted? If you have an appointment, is the addissions counsellor on time? If not, can she explain the delay?

How is the interior maintained? Look for neat, tidy displays and bulletin boards. Good schools usually have reading materials or a video about the industry and their program to entertain you while you wait.

Does the admissions counsellor thoroughly explain the school’s education philosophy? Ask for a written course outline and discuss the curriculum thoroughly. Are all aspects of nail technology taught? The course should include:

Nail basics: manicures pedicures, men’s manicures hot oil tips.

Advanced techniques: sculptured nails, wrap systems, light-cured and no-light gels.

Spa techniques: paraffin wax, hand and foot facials, aromatherapy, reflexology.

Specialized tools: effective files (drills), nail dryers, airbrushes, UV lamps.

Business techniques: resume writing, state board regulations, professional appearance and behaviour, clientele-building, networking, independent contractor vs employee.

Customer service: international action with customers; booking appointments, retailing, cross-promotions client education.

Nail health and sanitation: sanitation and disinfection procedures, nail diseases and disorders, chemical safety, salon ventilation.

Clinic/workshop hours: Is there lots of time to practice the techniques you learn? How does the school attract clients for students to practice on?

Product knowledge: How does the school help educate students on products and tools not included in their student kit?

Field trips: Does the course include a field trip to successful salons, beauty supply stores, tradeshows?

Personal success training: guidance on managing and working with different personality traits for better client retention.

After reviewing the curriculum, ask the counsellor about the instructor’s qualifications: How long has she been teaching? How long did she work in the salon before becoming an instructor? What does she do to remain current on new techniques and industry trends?

What is the school’s job placement program, and what type of relationship does it have with local salon owners? Do salon owners come into the school to teach? Ask for the names of a few salon owners the school works with and call these owners. Ask them:

Have they hired students from that school?

How prepared are graduates of this school to start working in a salon?

Ask what types of continuing education the school recommends after you graduate.

If the tell you your education there is all you’ll need, beware in nail school you should expect to learn the basics of nail technology, and you should be prepared to take continuing education classes throughout your career to refine and improve your technique as well as learn new techniques and methods.

Ask when you can sit in and observe a class. During a break, ask students for their evaluation of the course and how well-prepared they feel they will be when they graduate.

Choosing the right school is the best investment you can make in your career as a nail technician as it will lay the groundwork for your future Consider the time you spend interviewing schools as your first homework assignment and give it the time and attention it deserves.

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