Recruitment has never been the easiest thing for any business owner but for beauty businesses even more rests on your staff. Your salon’s reputation, relationships with clients and product houses and, in fact, the survival of your business, are all heavily reliant on the quality of your therapists. So after months of hearing people from all areas of the industry warning that the market is heading towards a recruitment crisis, it’s time to investigate just how salon and spa owners have found themselves asking the same question: where have all the therapists gone?
”There’s a chronic shortage of therapists, I don’t know where they’ve all gone”, says Kieran Fowley, director of the Zen Lifestyle salon group, based in Edinburgh. “Four years ago, if we had a vacancy we’d get two dozen CVs through, but now we’re excited if we get any at all, and we’re having to interview candidates whose CVs we wouldn’t have even reached the second page of before.”
He says that in Edinburgh the situation has got so bad that salons are having to raise wages, often over and above what they can afford to, in order to compete. “A lot are now advertising salaries on job ads and they never used to do that”, he adds.
And the shortage stretches further than Scotland. Sarah Harris, owner of Virgo Beauty near Reading, even struggled to recruit a therapist progressing from NVQ Level 2 to 3. “I contacted local colleges and got one applicant, who I took on. She told me only four people from her course were progressing onto Level 3”, says Harris, who has been trying to recruit two additional therapists since January.
Of the therapists that do apply, an even smaller percentage is ready for the salon floor. “If I watch someone fresh out of college do a manicure, it’s usually of a standard that any member of the public would be able to do”, says Harris. Employers are often quick to blame further education colleges for their recruitment struggles, but is the finger pointing justified?
“I’ve been in recruitment for 15 years and the difference between the standard of therapist coming out of college back then compared to today is huge”, says Michelle Caheny, senior spa and beauty recruitment consultant at Spa and Beauty Connection. “But it’s funding cuts; it’s the reduction in mandatory teaching hours. Beauty therapy is a vocation and I think that’s been forgotten right at the top of the chain.”
With increasing pressure on the education system to deliver salon-ready therapists under time and cost restraints, it doesn’t help that both the number and standard of applicants onto beauty therapy courses has also dropped drastically. “You get used to being battered a bit by the industry”, says Joan Scott, director of Trafford College in Manchester. “But recruitment is dwindling for us too, which is worrying me. We always used to have a steady pipeline and we could be selective and say ‘you’re not quite right for this’, but now we’ve had to widen the net a bit, especially given the demand for jobs, because the beauty industry has exploded”, she explains.
The beauty industry is booming, with more salons setting up shop and new brands entering the market than ever before. The demand from clients is clearly there, but without the supply of therapists to meet it, the industry could be about to enter unknown territory.
”If I look around Edinburgh there are a lot more beauty businesses than there were 10 years ago”, says Fowley. “There’s enough demand but just not enough therapists to go around. On top of that, menus have really expanded. We do about 100 treatments and we need our therapists to be able to do everything.”
With increased demand for treatments comes longer opening hours, creating yet another hurdle to recruitment. “Due to consumer demand more salons are open late and on Sundays and bank holidays now, but when you think about the longevity of a therapist sustaining those working hours…it’s difficult, they don’t have a life”, says Caheny.
Fowley agrees that Zen’s therapists are expected to work long hours: “Our hours are 7.30am-10pm and 9am-6pm on weekends, so there are a lot of evenings and weekends. But those hours need to be there to accommodate client demand”, he says.
Ask any salon owner what would be on their therapists’ wish lists and better working hours would likely come a very close second to higher pay. Many owners put this down to generational changes in attitudes towards a work/life balance.
“[Young therapists] don’t want to work weekends or evenings. This generation is so used to having everything they want; they go away for fancy weekends and to festivals, they want a certain lifestyle so they want their weekends and evenings”, says Harris. “I see CVs where a therapist has had seven or eight jobs in one year. When I ask why they left a job it’s because they weren’t allowed to take the holiday they wanted. Sometimes they just walked out like it’s not even a job”, adds Caheny.
It’s disheartening to hear so many accounts of new therapists with little respect or enthusiasm for the industry they’re entering. “The generation coming out of college now wants to know what we can do for them first and foremost. They don’t come prepared to stick out their first job for a decent amount of time and try to prove themselves; they don’t mind changing jobs after a few weeks if it isn’t exactly what they want”, says Fowley.
Colleges are steadily absorbing these concerns and understanding that in most cases they have to focus more on teaching soft skills such as professionalism, people skills and attitude towards work. “Some of them are 16 and they haven’t even had a part-time job. We’ve got to get them ready for the world of work from scratch sometimes”, says Scott. “We try to encourage them to get jobs on their CVs while they’re at college and develop those soft skills”.
Pointing the finger
Salons don’t get off scot-free when it comes to placing blame for the therapist shortage. “There are graduates who are talented and passionate but employers just won’t entertain their CVs. Ten years ago, a lot of new graduates were employed but that just doesn’t seem to be happening now”, says Caheny. “Equally, junior therapists aren’t being offered promotion to senior roles after three or four years, so they’re losing interest. A lot of people leave beauty therapy by the age of 25”, she adds.
With salons struggling to keep hold of staff, training bonds are becoming common-place, usually requiring that a therapist who leaves within two years of training re-pays the cost of that courseto the employer. “It scares a lot of them; for an 18 year old two years is a long time to sign up to, but therapists should see it as a positive thing because it shows that the employer is investing them. If it was standard across the board they wouldn’t have any choice, says Caheny.
Employers are having to offer more and more to show therapists they’ll be valued in order to attract them in the first place. “We find it increasingly hard to attract good therapists and we’ve already got a very good commission scheme, plus incentives with our product houses and benefits across the entire business”, says Karen Wilkinson, group head of spa at The Bannatyne Group.
“We now have to work harder at creating partnerships with other businesses in order to be able to offer attractive benefits, because gone are the days you could put a job ad online and be inundated with 20 or 30 CVs.” Fowley says retention tools are a big focus for Zen Lifestyle too, especially given that competitor salons are “actively trying to poach our staff”. He continues: “We honestly do try so hard to make it a happy, fun and productive environment where therapists get a lot of opportunities.”
Ultimately, there’s no shying away from the issue that wages for beauty therapists are often comparatively low. “I think salary is the problem – people perceive it as a low-paying industry”, says Harris, while Fowley adds: “It would be great if we could all pay our therapists £30,000 a year but the reality is that no one will spend £100 on a manicure, so there’s only so much you can pay and still have a viable business, especially with all of the increasing business costs of late.”
The pay issue would be an obvious explanation for a drop in therapist numbers if it weren’t for the fact that salaries have actually increased in the past five years. Research conducted by Professional Beauty in 2014 and again in 2016 found that the average salary of a therapist in London increased from £16,000 per annum in 2012 to £20,250 in 2016, and from £14,000 to £16,229 for those outside of the capital. It’s entirely possible that despite this increase, the average salary just isn’t enough to sustain a young adult in comparison to the snowballing cost of housing and living in general.
This could explain why many qualified therapists are spending a short amount of time in salon before going it alone and setting up a mobile business, taking themselves out of the job market. “A lot of people are now just doing it themselves, because it does offer a lot of flexibility and it can sustain you really well. Some brands now don’t even require you to have therapy training; they’ll set you up at home after a one-day course and you’re away”, says Harris. “Then you can be at home all day promoting yourself for free on social media so you can charge a fraction of what salons do because you can afford it.”
More professional brands now offer packages for mobile therapists, and with portable tools like at-home UV lamps and handheld microdermabrasion devices, it’s easier than ever to give a salon-quality treatment in the comfort of the client’s home.
The changes set to come with Brexit also pose a threat to the flow of international workers larger salons and spas have enjoyed. “We’ve always had three to five Irish therapists at any one time, and we have a very good Slovakian receptionist with a therapy background. It worries me that, post-Brexit, jobs with us might not be so attractive to them; that they won’t feel that Britain is such a friendly place to be”, says Fowley.
While the recruitment outlook may seem bleak, it’s important to remember that client demand is on the rise, and beauty is an industry that’s well versed in quickly adapting to change. Harris is developing a LinkedIn network for local salons and spas to connect and communicate, making it easier to headhunt directly and share information on therapists looking for roles. Similarly, Caheny has teamed up with business consultant Valerie Delforge on a Facebook group called Keeping up With the Beauty Industry, specifically for therapists. “It’s a portal for them to bounce ideas off each other and feel more a part of the industry. There are so many resources directed at salon and spa owners and managers, but therapists don’t get any networking events or anything to make them feel involved in the industry”, she says.
Caheny believes employers need to be more open to taking on graduates to induct them into salon life “so they become energised and interested. The graduate is a blank canvas and having one on your team is an advantageous position for you”, she adds. Taking on a promising Level 2 learner on a part-time basis so they can become acquainted with what will be expected of them in the salon environment could well turn out to be a win-win for you both.
Bannatyne spas do just this: “Learners do a hosting job to get them engrained into the business and they might pick up a few treatments they’re already qualified in. We’re keen to nurture passion, and we’ve retained quite a few of them so far”, says Wilkinson.
Salons seeking out older therapists could also consider advertising job shares to allow working mothers a more viable way to return to the salon.
Educators hardly need any more demand on them, but everyone we spoke to agreed that it would be hugely beneficial to employers if “it was widespread that learners got even a bit of basic commercial training and knew what to realistically expect when they start a job; what a day in the life of a therapist is like”, says Wilkinson.
The experts agree that to reignite enthusiasm and commitment for the profession, it’s high time we worked to elevate the status of the beauty therapist, highlighting inspiring career journeys and role models to encourage pride and respect in the job. Wilkinson says: “Therapy needs be introduced as an industry with so much potential where you can have a fantastic career and really make a difference to people. We need to get better at showing them just how far they can go.” PB