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Career Talk: Manicurist Kathleen Selke

Sick of your job? Tempted to switch to cosmetology, but too scared to make the jump? Meet Kathleen Selke, who one day 28 years ago unexpectedly decided to leave a stable, office job to become a nail technician.

Ask her if she regrets it and she’ll laugh. “My love is nails,” she says, her voice bubbling with enthusiasm. “I meet the best people, have great conversations, and make people feel good about themselves.” Being a nail technician also provides a steady income, even when the economy tanks, she says. Plus, It’s flexible and fun. What else is there?

Find out more about cosmetology careers.

The Right Question At The Right Time: Why Don’t You Become A Nail Technician?

For Kathleen, it all began, really, with her own nails. She loved how they looked, and saw the role lovely nails could play in life. “I always have been able to grow my nails, and when I took a secretary position, I wanted to keep my nails long. I dealt with a lot of people coming in, so my hands were always on display.”

So she spent lots of time with her nail technician to keep those nails pretty. When her nail tech told Kathleen she was moving to another state, Kathleen tried not to panic. She had followed her nail tech to various locations for years; it was pretty nails, sure, but it was also friendship. But a multi-hour drive was out of the question, of course. Kathleen at that time had a young child. She already was so stressed for free time, she mentioned to the nail tech.

That prompted a response from her nail tech that changed Kathleen’s life: “Why don’t you become a nail technician yourself?” The nail tech said she could refer a number of clients, since she was relocating.

Quitting Her Office Job For Cosmetology School

Kathleen instantly loved the idea. She asked her boss if she could have a temporary lay off from her job in order to attend cosmetology school. She assured her boss she was not quitting—and she meant it. The manicurist career could be something on the side.

But she hated having her little girl in day care all day. She kept that in mind as she attended what is now called the Brighton Institute of Cosmetology in Brighton, Michigan. Luckily, she loved the training.

“School was fun,” she says. “I got to be creative, I got to be social. The classes were not hard.

“As long as you studied the chapter and did your workbook, you could pass the tests. We had 100 hours of classroom book work, and then learned hands-on techniques and skills. After that, we went out into the salon to serve clients.”

Kathleen was surprised that she had to learn some chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, at least as these subjects relate to nails, hands, and feet. It was interesting. “I learned there is structure to the hands, to the nails, that there are 100 layers to the nail plate.”

Once she earned her certificate came the big question: Should she quit that full-time job that now seemed such drudgery compared to working as a nail technician? What helped make her decision was that about three months after Kathleen earned her certificate, the manager of Institute asked if she could come back and teach.

So the answer to quit-or-not quit the other job was “Yes!” Kathleen waved goodbye to the now-boring office gig, and started teaching at the school while servicing her own clients at home.

A Stable Life, A Good Income

Things weren’t as difficult at first as she had feared. Yes, you must put in some nights and Saturdays, but you also can set your own schedule. Meanwhile, Kathleen says, “my nails were advertisement.” That’s how she ended up with clients from her local bank, her grocery store, and her daughter’s school. When anyone admired her nails, she pulled out her business card.

Of course, today you’ve got Facebook, Instagram, and whatnot. But Kathleen started her business in the early 1990s, hence the business cards. To some degree, she says, personal contact—with her beautiful nails— still attracts clients.

As time went on, Kathleen learned that being a nail technician was not an insecure profession after all. In fact, when the economy crashed in 2008, “we didn’t,” she says. Several of Kathleen’s friends who worked for the major auto companies lost their jobs. “I kept mine,” she says. “People said, ‘How come? You’re just a nail tech.’

“I told them, ‘This is a service job. When people are depressed, when they’ve lost their jobs, getting their nails done makes them feel better.’”

Another reason for her continued prosperity—and that of nail technicians in general—is the explosion in new products and innovations with nails: gels, fiberglass and acrylic nails, and now ultraviolet gel polishes.

“The service menu just boomed,” Kathleen says.

It’s About So Much More Than Money

But it’s never been about the money for Kathleen. “It’s all about making people feel good. Our nails make us feel pretty. When we look in the mirror, we judge ourselves. But when we look at our hands, we think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty!’ We don’t see our weight, wrinkles, gray hair. There’s no judgement there.”

So if you want to make that career switch and become a nail technician, go for it, Kathleen says. “This is affordable, and it doesn’t take four years. In a short amount of time, you can be licensed as a nail technician.”