Time to trim the hairdressers?

24th October 2003 at 01:00
There are 25,000 job vacancies in salons every year - and nearly 60,000 students to fill them, writes Steve Hook. Are they exploited?

When a college principal is showing visitors around, likely as not he or she will give them a guided tour of the hairdressing salon.

Nearly 60,000 students signed up for hairdressing courses over the past year. Most are with City amp; Guilds, the awarding body which has 90 per cent of the market in the industry-standard level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualification.

There is no doubt this explosion of hairdressing is linked to a genuine demand from students. After all, that's how colleges are funded - by bums on seats.

And the hairdressing industry, with 25,000 vacancies a year, isn't complaining. Salons have a steady supply of qualified and partly-trained applicants competing for what are often low-paid jobs.

In its skills strategy White Paper, the Government says it will provide "targeted support" for those developing vocational skills up to level 3.

This support, the paper adds, will be focused on "priority areas to meet sectorial and regional skill needs".

But this begs a question. Does a high level of "skill need", as identified by an employer, point to a genuine shortage or simply a desire to reduce wage levels through over-supply?

To some observers, this question goes to the heart of New Labour's "third way" approach to skills - the idea that the bottom-line objective of employers to increase productivity can be matched to the social justice agenda of increasing employability.

The Trades Union Congress is an enthusiastic supporter of the Government's skills strategy, but acknowledges that there is a danger that qualifying too many people in some occupations can damage their prospects of getting employment or, once in a job, enjoying decent pay and conditions.

Iain Murray, learning policy adviser at the TUC, said: "There is an issue of oversupply in hairdressing. There is clear evidence that employers can just pick and choose.

"If they don't get the people who will accept poor terms and conditions, there is plenty of capacity just to choose someone else.

"Funding arrangements are too much about bums on seats at the moment and we hope that will change as part of the Government's skills strategy and the movement towards regional skills partnerships which take account of the demand in particular industries."

Among its many objectives, the White Paper intends to build a consensus between employers and unions about skills to break the vicious circle of low pay and low skills. There are early signs that this objective is being achieved even at this stage.

Just as the further education national training organisation has stressed that raising lecturers' standards must go in hand-in-hand with better pay and conditions, so the hairdressing industry is reaching the same conclusion about its own employees.

The employers' training body, the Hairdressing and Beauty Industry Authority, knows its own evidence of skills shortages cannot be taken at face value.

Andrew Derby, deputy chief executive of the authority, said: "From surveys we did last year, and the year before, there are still shortages for stylists and senior stylists.

"But we can see the other side of that argument. This industry has its responsibilities to look at low rates of pay if it wants to get a higher calibre of young people. It could be a case of reducing quantity (of people being trained) but increasing quality."

He said the regional partnerships may see hairdressing as a low priority because they do not believe the industry is important to the economy, although he would dispute this view.

Mr Derby added: "It will come down to how you get the balance between what young people want to do as a vocation and the application of economic policy in the regions."

Tom Bewick, a former government policy adviser who is now working for the Learning and Skills Council, says over-supply of qualifications is "a major problem" but the best way of improving pay and conditions is the drive towards full employment rather than tinkering with the way skills training is funded.

"Unemployment provided choice for employers but that is not where we are any more. With full employment already achieved in some areas, employers have to look harder at the people they do have and see how they can improve their skills," said Mr Bewick.

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