The acrylic sector

Forbes , November 01, 1998

Federal job-counters have lost a quarter million manicurists.

In last fall's Occupational Employment Projections to 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed "manicurist" among the fastest-growing occupations, projected to grow from 43,000 to 62,000 between 1996 and 2006. That's an impressive increase for a job the bureau didn't even track in 1979.

And it's easy to believe if you walk down any street in an American city or visit strip malls. There are nail salons everywhere.

Way too many, in fact, to be staffed by a mere 43,000 people. Nails magazine estimates that there are nearly 45,000 nail salons nationwide.

Using state licensing data, Nails pegs the number of active nail technicians (the preferred term in these days of high-tech acrylics) at 311,725, up 5% from 1997. With a circulation of nearly 60,000—and competitors both in English (Nailpro) and Vietnamese (Saigon Nails)—the trade magazine itself casts doubt on BLS figures.

The BLS can't account for the discrepancy between its numbers and these much larger ones. Its researchers use surveys of both households and business establishments, but neither technique unearths most manicurists. (If the bureau can be that wrong about licensed manicurists, imagine what happens with unlicensed gardeners, car washers or nonunion construction workers.) As embarrassing as that oversight may be to the job-counters, it's quite appropriate.

Our media-driven mental picture of "the economy" doesn't have a place for nail salons, especially as a growth industry. We tend to think of the work force as divided among brainiac computer programmers, zillionaire investment bankers, unionized assembly-line workers, low-paid hamburger-flippers, and the cops, lawyers and doctors we see on TV.

We can't imagine that an industry could grow up in plain sight, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in sales, without anyone taking notice. But this one did.

It's easy to get into the nail salon business. A manicurist license typically takes about 400 hours of schooling, and opening a salon requires only a few thousand dollars capital. Fierce competition, spurred by immigrant entrepreneurs, has driven down prices but also expanded the market enormously. The mere presence of so many salons is a great advertisement. These aren't high-profit businesses, but they provide flexible, fairly pleasant jobs at decent wages. Including tips, the average nail tech makes around $475 for a 35-hour week.

Behind the $6.3 billion retail-service industry are the hundreds of distributors and manufacturers that supply the salons. Nailpro lists nearly 400 manufacturers in its 1997 Gold Book directory. These companies make everything from polishes, nippers and acrylic-nail-sculpting compounds to injection-molded polish racks, manicure tables and toeless pedicure socks. Says Nailpro Executive Editor Linda Lewis, with little exaggeration: "Everything you see in that Gold Book was developed over the last 20 years."

When we think about the economy we rarely make a place for the multibillion-dollar beauty industry or similarly "frivolous" sources of economic value. But if we ignore all the businesses that provide beauty, entertainment, personal guidance or other "nonessential" intangible goods, we will miss the future of the economy. Human beings of all incomes and levels of technology crave beauty and diversion. As people get richer, they can afford to spend more on such luxuries. By historical standards, Americans are extremely rich.

It's not surprising, then, to find smart entrepreneurs creating economic value by catering to our happiness as well as to our physical needs. To find them, however, you have to look. Try the Yellow Pages, under "Manicures."