Getting started in the nail biz.... picking a school and beyond


I have gotten many letters from current or recent nail school students about the education (or lack of) that they received. In this section I will discuss what to look for and expect from a school, and what you should do AFTER graduation regardless of the quality of education you felt you received.

I have heard wonderful stories about great schools and great teachers. I have also heard "horror stories" about having every lesson read verbatim out of the textbook, with no lecture or discussion, and very little if any hands on practice in school on live models!
Schools have to be concerned with the percentage of their students that will pass the state boards exam! If a schools percentage of students who pass the state boards falls below a certain point then they can be closed down by their states department of professional regualation. So, fair or not, many schools feel pressured to only teach what it takes to pass the state tests. So what can ineveitably get lost in this process is what many techs consider to be the "real education".
Milady's textbook (which is a course a very good 1st stepping stone) is designed to meet the "book knowledge" requirements based on the current state boards exams! So unless something can ever be done about the way the exams are written and administered in the first place, many schools have their hands tied. This is common to almost any licensed or regulated industry.
That's not to excuse schools for poor education by any means....schools need to be hiring (and willing to pay for) experienced Nail Technology Teachers, not just Cosmetology teachers. While a Cosmetology teachers License allows them to teach any subject, including nails, many of them have never done nails for a living or even taken any classes in nails! This is not to say necessarily that they would not be capable of providing a good, basic nails education, certainly these students would have dedicated, enthusiastic teachers who would certainly be capable of educating their students to pass their state boards. What I keep hearing over and over though is that students want more!

But, the ways the laws are written to umbrella a Cosmetology license to cover our entire beauty industry, which makes it completely legal to operate this way! State licensing boards place the "teaching" part of your license, above any practical experience with the subject matter. Whether that is right or correct is always a "hot" topic!

Also consider this though: are you willing to go to school longer and to pay more, to learn more? At first most techs have a resounding yes....untill they think about it. Many techs find that they would prefer to spend those extra dollars and hours taking the EXACT classes that interest them! So get your basic education and your license, and then get prepared to get your REAL education!
So for this reason a student MUST start seeking outside sources of education, even before they graduate! Read every book on the market (Milady's has at leeast 20 or 30 that I own alone on nails!), watch every manufacturer video you can get a hold of, subscribe to and read our trade journals, such as Nails & NailPro (links to them on links page), and join Professional Associations NOW! In the USA, we have the NCA; The National Cosm. Assoc.(which has a whole section devoted to nails, each state has an affiliate, and then each state is broken down into smaller local/regional affiliates).

When picking a school here are just a few of the things to keep in mind and things to look for and investigate before making a final decision..... (Besides all the stadard questions about tuition, curriculum, etc., etc!!!!)

1) Does the school offer Eve and Sat. hours! Afterall, this is the beauty industry, that is when the majority of clients are available. If a school is only open 9 am to 5 pm, then A) they may not be able to attract enough business for you to get your practical experience and B) you will leave school w/ a very "warped" sense of the real beauty world! As a new tech eves and Sat.'s are how you will build your book! Buliding a full book of only daytime people is nearly impossible(for one thing, clients lives change, and they can no longer come during the you just let her leave? Eve clients tend to be less picky, because they are in "competition" w/ other clients for afterwork and Sat. spots....daytime clients for the most part, can afford to be more demanding (ie in wanting experience, expertise, speed, etc) because they have less "competition" to get the exact appt that they want) just being available eves and sats gets you clients by default as a new tech!)

2)HOW do they attract clients to the schools practice floor for you to practice their location, ads in papers, etc. How much hands on practice are the students getting at school? During times they are "open" to the public are there ample patrons available for you to work on? What services are being offered for you to do on the practice floor to paying clients? Manicure, pedicure, tip application, and acrylic nails (full-sets and especially fills!) are the bare minimum. They should also be promoting the use of forms, fiberwraps, and in a best case scenario have at least one gel nail station and a drill available to be used on the practical floor. (I am talking here about what you actually get to practice "hands on", on the PAYING public, of course they should teach more areas than this in the classroom and in your hands on practice on fake hands, etc.) (I recently heard from a soon to graduate student that they were never taught pedicures. Just told that it was the same basic steps as a manicure, and never once given the opportunity to do one in school! Let me tell you, that as a salon owner, I test you first on polishing, and then on pedicures...if you can't do a good CONFIDENT pedicure you will never get your first job! Most larger salons [especially Day Spas, I used to get calls from Mario Tricocci all the time!] can put a good pedicurist to work immediately, and build her book from there!)

3)Ask to see the teachers licenses...are they cosmetology or nail techs? A higher % of Nail tech teachers is preferable usually. Talk to the teachers. Do they currently still (or have they ever!) do nails at any point for a living to keep their own skill level up. Ask her/him what the last class they took was, and what it was about. These questions should be met w/ enthusiasm by the instructor!

4) Check back at differant times and days to "reinspect". Talk to current students on their break...what do they think...and ask the students who are still discussing nails and can't wait to get back to class....not the ones chain smoking and talking about how they can't wait to go home today. A learning enviorment can be very negative and uninspirational if your fellow students aren't as excited as you are!

5) How many differant teachers will you get? Having several teaching styles is preferable to just one teacher (unless she's unbelievably good and flexible!) Do any specialists in certain areas come in to teach specific classes...(such as gels or drills).....who can give you an overview of certain areas for future study! (Because honestly, they just CAN NOT teach you everything to perfection! That's where a students own initiative comes in and continuing ed. constantly after (and even before) graduation!

6)How often do manufacturers reps come in to give a brief lesson or product demonstration (ask to see the list of planned ones for the next 3 months, and the list from the last 3-6 months!). Manufacturers WILL go to good schools because the students there are future potential product buyers! But they won't waste their time on a school that has a low placement rate after school...

7) Which brings us to their placement many new grads get their first job? And what percentage in how long (for example, do 50% have positions w/in a month of graduation? Do 90% have jobs in 3-6 months, etc, these are figures out of my head and by no means are the answers you are looking for....but compare the #'s you get from each school). Also, ho do they verify that info? Do they offer placement services to you! Do salon owners come in regularly to the work floor to watch you work (a good reason to ALWAYS be dressed well at school!) and offer onsite w/ the manufacturers, ask to see the list of future and past salon owner visits! Do they track their graduates after graduation? How many (%) are still doing nails (or at least in the beauty biz) 1, 3, and 5 years down the road?

8) Look around for signs of professionalism...a staff that is respectful and knowledgeable, and not intimidated or "insulted" by your jornals and other books available for loan or purchase....are students even made aware any of them exist....lists of upcoming shows, seminars, classes, etc.....a clean and professional looking enviornment. And again MOSTLY teacher w/ experience who can answer most of your questions right on the spot, or know where to find out the answer by tomorrow!

9) Now you must take all of this info and weigh it against location, pricing, payment plans, etc!
This isn't everything you need to consider when selecting a school, but it gets you going in the right direction!

As for those of you who have already completed or are about to complete what you consider to be an "inferior" education, it is all in your hands now! Don't waste valuable time "blaming" your school! Spend every possible moment you have now to practice and "upgrade" your education yourself! (Even if you were luck enough to have a wonderful education, this is not the time to sit back and relax.)

Read every book and magazine(back issues even), watch every video, go to every class, tradeshow, join professional associations, get involved! etc. Use initiative. And yes most of these things will cost you time and money....but what is your other alternative at this point????? To be a mediocore or poorly qualified nail tech who never builds a book and ultimately leaves the field.....or move on and get better and make a wonderful, satisfying, rewarding, well-paid, carreer for yourself!

See if you can apprentice somewhere for free or hopefully minimum wage to supplement your knowledge....even school teachers are required to teach for "free" for a semester (actually they are still paying the school for the opportunity to student teach!) before they enter the work force...and many of us (nail techs) can go on to earn more than they do! A high paying career does not come from 3-6 months of vocational training. SCHOOL is only your first stepping stone that ENTITLES you to go on and continue your education! After that, the rest of the STEPS are up to us!

Unfortuneately, many new nail techs do need to reevaluate IF they have made the right career choice. Many are disappointed that they don't make a ton of money right away; it comes with time, practice, continuing education and growth, and experience. Consider this, if a brand new nail tech could make what one with 10 years experience is making, then why would the one with 10 yrs. exp. stick around if she can never expect to make more $money someday. As in every professional field you have to start somewhere and work your way up. If you reach the top too fast then what more is there even to aspire to?

Many new techs quickly tire of working evenings and Saturdays and go on a quest to find a new job with "better" hours. The laughs I've had as a salon owner when a tech will come in for an interview and tell me that she'd like to find a job w/ flexible hours (yes, I can be flexible...with about 6-8 weeks notice that is!) and that she would like to work "like maybe something like 10 am to 5 pm, 4 days a week or something like that, w/ weekends off, and be able to make good money right away"...and that is a answer to those applicants is "yeah right, me too! Good bye!
I don't mean to be so harsh or offend anyone, but that attitude above is just not a realistic one...I know that most of you here reading this DO NOT have that sort of attitude....and are probably getting a good chuckle out of it....We all know that we only get out of this life, world, career, what we put into it! Bye for now.....Barb@Nailsplash

Following is a message that was one of many that I have sent to a a future nailtech due to graduate soon, who has 3 children under 5 years old, and one more on the way! She is determined to make a career for herself and be a good mother, so our first conversations started w/ how to juggle that balance! Since then I've gotten to "know" her more and feel like I've become her personal "cheerleader"....because IF SHE CAN DO IT then we all some more "inspirational" (I Hope) words of advice from one mother/nailtech to another! (I've left her name out for privacy)
Dear Aspiring Nail Tech,

Boy do you have your hands full! My prayers and my heart go out to you!
Try and commit to a Sat. and 2 or 3 eves for the best possible hope of making a's just not possible to not work Saturdays and build a book....and even after your book is built clients lives change and they need Saturdays occassionally and some even permanently...I still work from 8 am to 1 pm on Sat. and I hate it, but it is part of the career! But at least I can then accomodate everyone with out loss of income, and still make it to family parties, weddings, etc.

Wheter you work with gels or acrylics isn't important....but you do need to really excell at manicure & pedicure first to get your first good job with longterm possibilities....Those are the areas salons know they can get business in the door for you to "practice" on. By practice, I mean not only your technical skills, but your salon "people" skills as well! (Dealing with the public is a learned SKILL, that does not necessarilly come naturally to even the most "people oriented" person!)
I always tested potential employees on their polishing abilities at the first interview! Most applicants could not pass that I would give them a mini-lesson in the art of polish application if she/he seemed to have potential and then schedule their 2nd interview for about a week later and then re-test their polishing abilities....most were still practice your polishing, you need to be good and quick enough to stick to schedule. Offer to polish the nails of the person who interviews you!

Let them see some of your skill level and more importantly your initiative! Nail Techs need to be self-starters! If not then they are gone from the industry in less than 3 years (national statistics show that only 1 in 10 nail techs is still working at nails 3 years later). If I were in your shoes I would apply first (to get EXPERIENCE in salon life!) at the poshest Day Spa in town. Put on your best outfit, with your nails nicely manicured (French Manicure polish best!), and your hair pulled back or up, and just WALK in on a slow day (Mon or Tues) and ASK the receptionist what their protocol is for hiring new nail techs (almost ALL salons are ALWAYS on the lookout for new techs, even if they don't have an actual opening to fill). Such as do they prefer you to send a resume, fill out an application, etc. Ask if if there would be a good time to call the manager/owner to discuss career opportunities. Make it clear that you do not expect to be interviewed right now (although it has been known to happen), and that you are merely inquiring as to their protocol for hiring!

If you end up in a full service day spa setting, then most likely most of your work in the beginning will be manicure and/or pedicures that were bought in conjunction with a whole day spa gift certificate. This will give you practice polishing, filing, and following salon protocol, all essential life-long salon skills. The good part is that the tips will most likely have the potential to be more than your starting salary! Even if you go to a nails only salon, expect that most of the business booked into your book will be ALL the pedicures, and a lot of manicures (especially if the client is using a sale coupon!). Don't despair that most of the Full-sets will go to those with seniority; just as you will expect it to be once you have seniority. (Not that there is anything wrong with those services, it's just that most techs prefer to do the artificial nails rather than natural. Although there are many techs who have carved out a nice niche for themselves offering ONLY natural nail services!) As clients get to know and TRUST you they will come back, again maybe just for the manicure, but next time it could be for the FULL-SET of acrylics you've been dying to apply!

Be sure to figure out a work schedule you can stick to. Because of the costs of advertising, and the fact that ads are booked sometimes months in advance, it is not uncommon for an employer to ask for 6 weeks notice or more, for planned days off that are contrary to your normal work schedule! Your employer may be booking appts based on your schedules up to 6 months in advance! If you are willing to think of your first 3 months or so as your apprenticeship (ie as if you were still in school)(and that's why I suggest a high-end salon to learn in!)then you will do well! A new nail tech COSTS a salon owner money for the 1st 6 months of FULL-TIME employment (so at part time it's longer because of the slower learning curve w/ fewer hours per week), then a salon owner ONLY breaks even the next 6 months!, in the following 6 months the salon owner cathches up for the losses of the 1st 6 months. So after 18 months a salon owner has only broken EVEN (NO PROFITS!) on a new is after this point that an profitable tech. I'm only telling you all this to help you....I hope you don't take it wrong! Because it sounds like you have a good attitude and a lot of potentail! And besides, w/ 4 kids at home you are going to NEED to get out of the house.

There are some days when I really see going to work as a break conmpared to the "craziness" of life at home with the kids! And it will be good for your husband too, to see just how hard you work all day at home while he "gets" to go to work! And best of all it's going to be good for your kids as they grow up, to see their mom as a "real" person, with a real life and outside interests, and not just their "servant". That you have a real life too (like Dad)and that you have other interestes and people you know....and that you have a job you like....and have more to talk about than who threw-up today!
Most people don't think it's possible to have a career you actually like (sure, there are some days I'd rather stay home!)....but I really, truly, LIKE my job (and if you read my bio on my "About" page you'll see I've had other careers)....and that is a great source of satisfaction in it's own right.

When I first started in nails it was just going to be a hobby, something fun and differant than the corporate really didn't occur to me about the money possibilities! So you are on the right track, if you get into nails because you love them (w/out thinking you'll get rich quick)then you will do very, VERY, well!
I hope the best for you! Let me know how you are doing! Good luck with the rest of your schooling and the rest of your pregnancy, and then state boards.....and everything else in life..... last thought, you must GET AN AIR CLEANER WITH LOCAL EXHAUST, LIKE A WTAC, TO CLEAR OUT THE FUMES AND THE DUST! from your breathing area please!(I'm not talking about an ionic claner, or a standard "air cleaner"...this must have a hose that pulls the air supply from with in inches of right at where you are working) Check out for WTAC, I know they are not cheap, but you must find a way for your health (and I say that pregnant or not!), even if you're working with odorless acrylics, the evaporative gasses are still there! Polish alone can give most people a headache! Even w/ gels I am still concerned with the dust generated when filing a nail. So give yourself the gift of your longterm health....and ability to pursue your new career for MANY years to come). Also see other pages within this site for information on barrier hand creams to protect yourself. OK, enough "scaring" you...remember, I do teach "Chemistry for beauty professionals" as my specialty, so this is a big concern for me. Plus, always wear a smock so that you don't bring all that nail dust home bit by bit to your home and your children....just more food for thought!

You will do just fine! The mere fact that you are reading this and reaching out for advice before school has even let out is a VERY good sign for your career prognosis
Well I hope you are excited about your nail career! I will continue to add more to this page as time goes by, as I think I paint a very realistic picture of the nail industry and what to expect. Just more inspirational cheerleading to keep you all going! I'm in your corner....I want you all to succeed! So if I seem a little frank and abrubt, it's only because my "motherly" instinct comes out and I want to help you skip some of the painful lessons others of us have experienced....and help you to succeed in this industry! Believe it or not...more QUALIFIED nailtechs will bring our prices UP not down! Because clients will be looking for and be willing to pay for better service.....right now our industry has such a bad reputation in many ways, that MANY CLIENTS are not even aware that TRUE QUALITY AND PROFESSIONALISM EVEN EXIST IN THE NAIL they don't know any better than to expect anymore than what the local discount salon has to offer. So I want more GOOD professional HIGH END techs out there....then I can raise my prices again!!!!! :-) (giggle!)

Bye all!----barb!