Aesthetician shortage threatens growth of spa industry


It has never been more convenient to get polished, buffed, primped or plucked.

In most neighbourhoods, a simple walk down the street unearths a spa ready to deliver teflon-strength manicures at lightning-fast speeds. You can use your smartphone to book near-painless waxing (with free Netflix for distraction!), blemish-blasting facials and get Bambi-like eyelash extensions that have become the holy grail of women weary of mascara use.

But beneath that smile set with smudge-proof matte lipstick, your favourite aesthetician is likely plotting her next move – to a similarly trendy spa that will pay as little as a dollar more an hour, has a “nicer” staff culture or will give her a weekend day off.

The spa industry, in the midst of a global boom and beset by staff shortages, is clamouring for talent. Fast growth in some markets including Toronto has driven so much competition for trained aestheticians that some employers find themselves stretching to win hourly-wage bidding wars that seem more characteristic of cutthroat Bay Street than an industry built on its ability to pamper and promote relaxation.

“There is a definite talent gap, no question,” said Katherine Johnston, an economist and senior research fellow with the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), an international think tank focused on wellness. “Every single person we talk to in the spa business says their work force – recruitment and talent – is their No. 1 challenge,” she said, adding: “People aren’t getting the message that this is a growing, high-demand career.”

Ms. Johnson’s newest research projects the global spa industry will need 500,000 new spa therapists by 2018. But meeting that number will be a challenge. A survey of owner-operators that Ms. Johnston led in 2012 showed that 95 per cent of respondents then faced serious hiring challenges. More than half of them believed their human resources issues were unlikely to improve.

Unless they do, though, industry growth could be stunted.

“This is a business that depends on people providing services,” Ms. Johnston said. “If you don’t have them, how do you run a successful business?”

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s a question this writer has asked frequently in the past. Although I no longer have ties to any spa business, three years ago I became a franchise operator of The Ten Spot, a national chain of beauty bars offering waxing, nails and facial services. Despite operating two of the company’s most successful stores before cutting ties, it seemed my hiring cycle had no end. Many of my fellow franchisees were in the same boat and as fledgling entrepreneurs, the human resources challenge stretched us thin. (It was one factor in my decision to leave, especially as a mother to two young children.)

“Like most professional trades today, there is definitely more demand than supply for highly trained and reliable aestheticians,” said Kristen Wood, The Ten Spot’s chief executive officer and founder, who will see her empire grow to 30 locations in Canada by year’s end. “This is not unanticipated, but it does put pressure on each location to be in a constant talent acquisition and advancement mode,” she said.

Antonietta Perretta, program manager at Humber College’s aesthetician/spa management program in Toronto, said that some weeks, her phone rings off the hook with companies looking to scoop up top students. While the school produces many, she said it’s tough to motivate students who aren’t performing well.

“There aren’t enough people willing to do the hard work that’s required – lots come out of school with the expectation they’re going to make $50,000 or $60,000 in their first year and all they have to do is show up,” said Robert Cass, CEO of the spa consulting firm Spaformation. A former instructor at Elmcrest College’s spa management program, Mr. Cass said only a third of his former students planned to make a career in the industry.

It’s not without challenges. Most professional spas require students to have certified diplomas attesting to their skills. But pay is often low and unstable. Wages are hourly – often starting at minimum wage or just above – commissions on retail sales or services are not standard and tips can vary. The work, literally done by hand, is physical and hard.

“It takes a special individual to work in this industry and still be empathetic and compassionate to guests,” said Daryll Naidu, director of spa operations at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.

Raising wages could break the bank for many spas, particularly those operating on low margins. Labour costs range from 25 per cent to 80 per cent of revenue, depending on the spa model. Franchise proprietors must also pay out 6 per cent to 10 per cent in monthly fees to their franchisor. That’s on top of lease or mortgage costs and other bills. Over the course of a year, raising the pay of one employee by just one dollar an hour easily adds up to $2,000 in costs once taxes, insurance and deductions are added in. And more money doesn’t usually solve the problem, Mr. Naidu said.

He said he’s found that money isn’t his staff’s sole motivator. “It pays the bills, but it’s not why they’re staying. It’s the little extras,” Mr. Naidu said, adding: “Throwing more money at them is a never-ending cycle. The positive attitude the employee has when you give them $1 more won’t last 12 months.”

Mr. Naidu, whose said his staff retention rate is 95 per cent for the current year, said his secret is creating an innovative corporate culture where everyone has buy-in. At his spa, staff participate in challenges to design new treatments; the winner makes a commission on sales if the spa adds it to the menu.

At Waxon, a growing chain of seven wax bars operated by former consultant Lexi Miles (one is a franchised location), managers talk about “careers, not jobs” and work to groom staff for internal promotions. They also meet weekly with staff to put out human resources fires before they start.

“Managers have an open-door policy and it’s all about mutual respect,” she said, adding: “That mights sound very fluffy, but it makes a big difference in an industry where that hasn’t always been the case.”

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