HARPERS FERRY – Vi Vo Nguyen wants to give West Virginia’s cosmetology rules a makeover.
Nguyen, owner of VIVO Hair Salon and Day Spa at 1315 W. Washington St. in Harpers Ferry, says the Mountain State’s outdated regulations are making it difficult for her and other business owners to find and keep employees.
By adopting the same licensing structure already in place in Virginia, Maryland and many other states, West Virginia could retain qualified workers instead of seeing them seek jobs outside its borders and also help her and other hard-working entrepreneurs grow their businesses, Nguyen said.
To make the needed changes happen, Nguyen is going to straight to the top: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
“Here I am, begging you for your help, your support and your attention,” Nguyen said in a letter to the governor mailed last month.
She has been down this path before.
In 2011, Tomblin came to her business to sign Shampoo Apprenticeship Bill No. 2368, which allowed salons and similar businesses to hire workers who complete a short course in health and sanitary practices as salon shampooers rather than being required to hire graduates of beauty or barber schools.
By hiring shampooers to handle that task, higher-paid stylists are freed up to concentrate on work that requires greater expertise, the cutting and styling of hair, said Nguyen, who grew up in Vietnam.
Nguyen said she’s grateful to Tomblin, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, since-retired lawmaker John Doyle and others for getting the shampoo bill passed.
But while that change has helped, Nguyen says the state ought to further update the way it handles rules for would-be salon workers.
Nguyen, for instance, wants to hire her 60-year-old mother to work alongside her as a nail technician. Her mom grew up in Vietnam and knows English well enough and has a plethora of practical experience under her belt, but because of the language barrier has been unable to pass the state’s required written cosmetology test.
Other states offer the test in Vietnamese, Spanish and other languages, Nguyen said, but not West Virginia. In her latest testing try, Duoc Thi Nguyen had assistance from a tester who read her the questions.
The tester wasn’t allowed to answer any of Duoc Thi’s questions or act as a translator, Nguyen said, and she blames those restrictions for her mother’s poor grade.
Now her mother is searching for a job in her field outside West Virginia. “English is not her first language, and by simply ensuring she understood the English questions presented to her would have enabled her to successfully pass the test,” Nguyen wrote in her letter to Tomblin. “This seems to be a clear-cut case of language discrimination.”
West Virginia offers testing accommodations for residents who are blind, suffer from dyslexia or have other challenges, Nguyen said, so why not take similar steps for someone whose first language isn’t English?
She also wants the state to allow apprenticeships rather than requiring cosmetologists to go to beauty or barber schools, which often cost so much that students look for a career that’s less expensive to get started in.
It’s an approach already working well in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and elsewhere, she said.
Nguyen also questions the current practice in which all cosmetologist candidates must come to Charleston to take the licensing test. For those who live in the Eastern Panhandle, making a six-hour drive one way to take a test is both daunting and time-consuming.
She suggests conducting the tests in multiple locations around the state multiple times throughout the year or even online.
Another way for West Virginia to help businesses like hers, Nguyen said, would be to extend the length of time a cosmetology license lasts. “In our neighoring states and many other states, you get a three-year license instead of West Virginia’s license, which is good for only one year,” she said.
“By making it more appealing to be a cosmetologist in the state of West Virginia, we can utilize the talent residing in the state – and bring back some of the talent that has left our state to work I more beautician-friendly environments,” Nguyen told Tomblin.
– Natalie Green contributed to this report