Business Management

Why Is Everyone Leaving the Nail Industry?

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.

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.”

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