In the past 10 years, the number of hairdressers has dropped by 30,000 to around 130,000. According to the National Hairdressers' Federation, the number of salons has fallen in the same period from 35,000 to 30,000. The result: prices are likely to soar as expert cutters become rarer.
Since the 1960s, when Vidal Sassoon revolutionised a stuffy trade and made it as potentially glamorous as being a pop star or a designer, young people with few qualifications but keen to do a creative job have been attracted to hairdressing.
Stylists say the reason for the shortage is that school leavers are no longer willing to start at the bottom, sweeping floors or washing hair for pounds 50 a week, despite the possibility of earning pounds 100,000 or more a year at the top of the profession.
Leading stylists also complain that the college-based method of training junior stylists is not as successful as on-the-job apprenticeships.
Trevor Mitchell, world hairdressing champion, says would-be hairdressers are leaving college armed with diplomas in hair-cutting theory but few practical or commercial skills.
Mr Mitchell, who cut his first head of hair at the age of 12, is offering school leavers a pounds 500 inducement to join him as apprentices, bypassing the college route.
"You can't get good stylists any more," he said. "Hairdressers are working flat out. If you're not going to get new good hairdressers you have to take on more clients yourself and charge more."
There are two levels of National Vocational Qualifications available in hairdressing. Level Two trains students in shampooing, perming, use of colour and basic "people skills"; Level Three is more in-depth and involves more time in the salon. While 20,000 people registered for Level Two last year, only about 6,000 applied for the higher qualification. Mr Mitchell said: "You can't read a book and know how to cut hair. The students come to me with NVQs, but they can't do the job. They have no confidence because they've never done it professionally."
Stylist Nicky Clarke, whose clients include The Duchess of York and Yasmin Le Bon, started as an apprentice in London, folding towels for Leonard, the society snipper of the 1970s. He now employs 60 people at his studio in Berkeley Square, where he runs an in-house apprenticeship, taking around 12 people a year. "The trainees start at the bottom, sweeping floors. They cut hair after two years. We believe we can offer a higher standard of training than colleges," said his creative director David Clark.
The point was echoed by Neil Ewen, resource manager of Michaeljohn, the Mayfair hairdressers whose clients include Dustin Hoffman, Felicity Kendal and Cherie Blair. "There is a shortage of juniors. It's better to work and train within a hairdresser's," he said. "One of the pitfalls of the college route is that you're not working with real people."
Rita Rusk, who owns three salons in Glasgow, is committed to training for hairdressers, having learnt the trade after paying for her own apprenticeship. "If they don't have the training they will never be a star," she said. "The future of hairdressing lies with the young."
But Charles Worthington, who was named hairdresser of the year last week, said both NVQs and apprenticeships can work. "It depends on the person. Some will flourish in the college environment but the essential thing if you join a salon is to check they give you good training. No one wants to sweep the floors for five years."
The National Hairdressers' Federation's general secretary, Ray Seymour, said: "Hairdressing is a job where you can control your career from an early stage. If you have the skill and personality you can set up in your twenties, become famous and earn a lot of money."Reuse content