A report in last Wednesday’s Guardian looked at the perennial issue of whether Further Education colleges are training too many hairdressers. The article — Are attacks on colleges for training too many hairdressers fair? — began by stating the standard view that colleges train too many hairdressers, citing a 2012 report from the Local Government Association, which said that that in 2011, 94,000 people completed hair and beauty courses despite there being just 18,000 new jobs in the sector, meaning there were five people qualified for every job.
Over-supplying certain types of workers to the local labour market — be they hairdressers, plumbers, welders or anything else — is clearly not a particularly efficient way of supplying the local economy with what it needs. If it is known that there are likely to be, say, 50 openings in a college’s catchment area for hairdressers, and a college is training 250 hairdressers per year, then there is clearly something of a misalignment. The way out of this situation is for a college to use local labour market information in order to find out what the demands of their local economy actually are, and then to take steps to realign course provision to meet these needs.
However, as the Guardian article goes on to say, the fact that there is an oversupply of hairdressers is not necessarily a disaster, for the simple reason that hairdressing courses are about more than getting people ready for hairdressing. Rather, such courses include a good deal of transferrable skills that can be used in other occupations.
To back up the argument that transferrable skills are in many ways as important as the actual subject area studied, the article quotes Dawn Ward, principal of Burton and South Derbyshire College, as saying, “I was involved in a panel debate at a conference recently and I asked the delegates how many of them were still working in the original job they trained for … about 15 hands went up out of a hall packed with hundreds of people. The idea of having a job for life just doesn’t really exist anymore.”
The panel debate mentioned by Dawn Ward was at last year’s AoC Conference, in which discussion largely focused on a report produced by EMSI looking into the issue of hairdressing and transferrable skills. The Guardian article cites our report as providing evidence of how skills learnt by hairdressing students are often transferable to a range of occupations, some of which are in better-paid sectors like education and retail.
As our report argues, “With a strong pipeline of interest in studying this vocational area but limited labour market potential, we need to find a way of harnessing this interest but channelling it into areas with greater labour market need. The best way to achieve this is to understand the transferrable skills that are being developed when training to become a hairdresser and identify other occupations that require similar skillsets.”
One of the best ways to understand transferrable skills, is through the US research programme O*Net, which we have adapted for the UK and have embedded into our Analyst tool. The O*Net system basically measures every standard occupation against a set of core skills, competencies and knowledge requirements, grading them using a scale of 1 to 100 on the level of importance and expertise to the role of that component. These skills, competencies and knowledge requirements are then matched with other occupations requiring similar skillsets. Using this system, our report found that based on a compatibility score of 90 or more (100 being fully compatible), there are almost 1.4m jobs in occupations with broadly similar skills requirements to hairdressing in England, and that there are 66,000 openings in such occupations each year.
Massive over-supply of learners in a particular occupation is clearly not a desirable outcome, and colleges need to take steps to ensure that their curriculum provision is reasonably closely aligned to the demands of their local labour market. However, over-supply is perhaps not the disaster that it is sometimes held up to be. Through transferrable skills, many learners end up in trades which, whilst not necessarily being what they trained for, nevertheless make good use of the skills they learned whilst training for another occupation entirely.