Plenty of apprenticeship starts and a high public spend on training would suggest a wealth of hairdressers, but an employer survey has indicated a lack of trained staff. Michael Davis investigates the apparent “disconnect”.

Our company intranet recently saw a lively discussion about the acceptable price of a man’s haircut.

A rift sharper than a barber’s shears formed between gentlemen who felt £6 was the upper limit they were prepared to pay and those happy to shell out much more.

As well as offering a fascinating window into the coiffuring habits of staff at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, hairdressing is often presented as way into a broader debate.

While technical experts worry about the finer points of supply and demand of skills in the UK labour market, the debate might be summed up with a single question — do colleges train too many hairdressers?

A range of statistics can be marshalled for both sides of the argument (with hairdressers’ associations firmly on the side you’d expect).

But look closely at the productivity and wage data for hairdressers and a couple of things stand out.

Hairdressers’ productivity is lower than other comparable jobs, and less than the average across the economy.

Their wages are similarly below average — less than half the median for all jobs, and falling. This low and apparently declining price suggests that the labour market is amply supplied with hairdressers.

There’s no doubt that learning to cut hair is popular. The associated frameworks consistently fall within the top ten in terms of apprenticeship starts, and the public spend is consequently high.

Why, then, does the UK Employer Skills Survey — the most comprehensive survey of its kind — tell us that more than one-in-three vacancies in the sector were hard to fill for “skills reasons”? This is more than twice the rate of similar vacancies economy-wide.

The only plausible reason is that there’s a disconnect between the skills taught by providers and the needs of hair and beauty employers. And that disconnect, in turn, fuels the low wages of hairdressers.

The commission has long argued that the solution to such mismatches is for much closer cooperation between providers and employers on courses and qualifications.

This would be a mutually beneficial arrangement for all involved. In his much-anticipated review of adult vocational qualifications, published last week, our commissioner Nigel Whitehead argued exactly this.

Rigorous, recognised and relevant vocational qualifications can transform lives and livelihoods. They can empower individuals to invest in their future. And they can grow the pop-up shop of today into the high-street retailer of tomorrow.

The review aspired for a system that places employers and employees at its heart, putting employers and employees first as key beneficiaries, and building a system that delivers business growth for employers and career progression for individuals.

Business gain by being able to hire employees with skills closely aligned to their roles from day one. Colleges and providers would do better in a system moving toward market provision of skills by being able to demonstrate positive outcomes for their students.

Learners are able to demonstrate the skills that businesses need, and thus command higher wages.

For the government, employers leading the design of qualifications would be of direct benefit to the public purse. The result of courses designed to meet business need would be a more efficient system, better employment outcomes, and higher productivity for those in work.

I share the view expressed by Doug Richard in his recent review of apprenticeships. The government should invest in skills in order to secure benefits for wider society: to provide a ladder into meaningful employment; to improve the quality of our workforce; and, to fulfil its obligation to young people to prepare them for a lifetime of employment.

This should bring us to question how the best interests of students, businesses, and government can be aligned.

Do that, and vexed questions around whether colleges train too many or too few hairdressers become obsolete.

Michael Davis, chief executive,
UK Commission for Employment and Skills

Mr Davis is due to be speaking at the Association of Colleges’ conference on Wednesday, November 20, at 4pm in Hall One of Birmingham’s International Convention Centre.