"I didn't know what I wanted to do when I left school," says Clare Blumer, who drifted into business studies and secretarial work until, in her early 20s, someone suggested she trained as a beauty therapist.
It was a pivotal moment for Blumer, now 34 and the manager of the luxurious CityPoint Spa in central London. Following a one-year training course, she embarked on a career that has brought international travel and exposure to the pampering grounds of the rich and famous.
"I've worked on a luxury cruise liner and managed spas at the Sanderson Hotel and Esporta's flagship club, the Riverside," says Blumer. "Now I'm re-establishing the CityPoint Spa almost from scratch, with new products and treatments."
The spa and spa-tourism industries are enjoying sustained growth as increasing numbers of us seek solace from the stresses of modern life in an aromatherapy massage or cleansing facial. This growth means spas, salons and hotels are crying out for trained, experienced beauty therapists, who can provide the massages, facials, waxes, manicures and other cosmetic treatments that apparently more and more of us, both male and female, now consider part of our grooming regime.
"Employers are finding it quite difficult to find the right staff," says James Brotherhood of the recruitment agency leisurejobs.co.uk. "There's a shortage, especially in the high-end hotel market where they are looking for high-calibre staff."
Training is critical as many treatments could be dangerous if not undertaken by qualified staff. The courses are intensive and rigorous. As well as learning how to wax, massage, cleanse, tint and polish, students are also given a thorough grounding in hygiene, health and safety and human biology.
"There's a lot of anatomy and physiology, which sometimes surprises people," says Pam Keyte of the Cambridge School of Beauty Therapy, which offers a fast-track one-year diploma that is internationally recognised. Its students, who come from as far afield as the Caribbean and China, can work anywhere in the world on graduation.
"Students need to have a certain academic ability to cope with the human-biology component," Keyte goes on.
"If you're working on the body, trying to improve circulation and lymph systems, it's important you have the knowledge to underpin what you're doing." Training doesn't stop there. Most therapists constantly add to their repertoire to keep up with the latest treatments and products.
It isn't an easy job. Hours are unsociable, often involving evenings and weekend work. Many jobs are commission-based, so therapists need to be able to soft-sell products or additional treatments to bump up their pay. Therapists also need to have a caring manner: good people-skills are vital when you are working one-on-one with clients for eight hours a day.
Although the pay is not fantastic, particularly for newly qualified therapists, there are other rewards. Those with the right skills and energy can quickly climb the ladder into management or diversify into recruitment, product-training, and spa consultancy. There are extensive opportunities for international travel, whether working on cruises or for a luxury spa in an exotic location. Brotherhood says his agency regularly places people in jobs in Europe, Dubai and the Maldives.
It is also a very flexible career. "I was looking for a career-change and something that would give me more flexibility now that my son is starting school," says Emma Hobbs, 32, who hopes to work freelance either from home or a local salon when she completes a two-year NVQ diploma next year.
Most women who go into the profession - and it is almost exclusively women - already have a real passion for treatments and procedures. "I've always been interested in having treatments myself, doing my own nails and waxing, so it made sense to turn it into my career," says Hobbs. "The course is harder than I was expecting but I absolutely love it."
How to get on
You must be good with people, prepared to work unsociable hours, well-turned out, and confident selling products and treatments
Depending on location, pay starts at between £12,000 and £14,000 but can quickly rise to £19,000 or more. The manager of a hotel spa can earn more than £50,000.
Many spas recruit straight from local colleges. Check www.leisurejobs.co.uk or industry magazines like Professional SpaReuse content