How developing apprentices has boosted one salon owner's business

Sarah Hallaran (pictured center), owner of multi-site salon group Beauty Oasis Spa, is still celebrating her win at the National Apprenticeship Awards in January. The business was crowned Small Employer of the Year in recognition of its commitment to developing young people through apprenticeships.

“The National Apprenticeship Awards wants to show how well businesses can run with apprentices. Ultimately, I think that’s what they recognised in us,” says Hallaran. Beauty Oasis Spa runs four salons in the South West, in Weston, Winscombe, Clevedon and Burnham, and it’s the set up at the Clevedon salon that particularly caught the attention of the National Apprenticeship Service, which organises the awards. “The Clevedon salon is completely staffed by current and former apprentices of ours,” explains Hallaran.

She took on this site – the business’s third – in 2015, and it’s the product of a relationship with apprentices that started seven years before, when Beauty Oasis Spa took on its second salon. “I was really struggling to find good staff from colleges; I was having to retrain them. Eventually, I complained to a local college because I felt the training just wasn’t as good as it could be.” This prompted the college to ask Hallaran if she’d like to partner with them and train their apprentices herself, in-house.

“I have a background in teaching so realised I could create my own programme and train my own apprentices. I found it so much better because I was in control of what the students learned. The curriculum was still exactly the same but I was able to add in extra pieces of information that couldn’t be taught at college but are so important,” she says.

Hallaran set up Beauty Oasis Academy in 2008 at the Weston site, where both apprentices and some private students are taught up to Level 3.

Practical approach

Hands-on experience comes from weekly sessions in the Weston salon, where students get industry-based, practical experience using Pier Augé products, the same brand that is used in the academy and for which Hallaran is also the UK distributor.

At present, an area of the salon is closed for training on Monday mornings, depending on which module is being taught, but “the plan over the next year is to extend that site so we can have a dedicated, dual-purpose area that works for training as well as day spa packages,” she says.

Leading up to qualification, students do supervised treatments on models. Once they’ve been assessed, Hallaran says her managers will know if the apprentice is at the right level to perform that treatment in salon. “We have an apprentice price list with about £10 or £15 off the standard price of treatments. You have to make a differentiation between fully qualified, experienced staff and apprentices. It’s unfair to expect apprentices to do the same job as somebody who’s been doing it for four years,” she says.

Once fully qualified in Level 2, apprentices begin working in the salon if the team feels their standards are high enough, and clients will be charged full price. “If they’re not quite ready, they’ll stay on the apprentice standard even if they’re qualified,” says Hallaran. “If a member of staff is feeling a bit nervous, giving them a full column is only going to make them more demoralised and scared about doing treatments. Some of them just need a little more time and we support them in different ways.”

The right attitude

Since 2008, Beauty Oasis has recruited exclusively from its in-house apprenticeship scheme with the exception of one private student, who Hallaran took on last year but also trained in the academy. Before opening the Clevedon site, Hallaran says she kept on two former apprentices “without really having jobs for them”, because she was waiting for the right salon to come up and didn’t want to lose them.

“If you’ve got great staff, you’ve got a great salon,” she says. “As we took on other salons, we realised it was the best way to recruit, because our apprentices already knew our ethos and mission statement; they understood good customer service and had excellent treatment skills.”

As the academy became established, private students were requesting training, so in 2014 she approached VTCT to become an accredited training provider, meaning Beauty Oasis Academy can now examine and certify external apprentices. “Because we’ve been doing it for a long time, we’ve got an amazing structure within the salons and we’ve put a member of staff from each site through assessor training,” says Hallaran. “As salon owners, we can be very quick to moan about education but you’ve got to be proactive, get involved with it and say, ‘What can I do to help improve standards for my salon?’”

One of the main benefits of this set-up, Hallaran says, is that because many therapists are ex-apprentices themselves, they can easily relate to and mentor the younger ones. “They know what it’s like to be an apprentice; it’s a very vulnerable time between 16 and 19 so we offer pastoral care too. If we can’t help, we’ve got a network of people who will support them to make sure they’re making the right decisions,” she says.

This network even includes a teacher to help apprentices achieve the GCSE grades needed to complete their apprenticeship, if they didn’t get high enough grades at school. The academy gets between 20 and 30 applicants each year and takes on up to 10. “We try and take on the girls we feel are going to thrive – not necessarily the ones who have the best grades,” says Hallaran. “It’s not really about skills or intelligence, it’s about attitude and wanting to do the best job you can do in that treatment.”

Funding for the apprenticeship scheme comes from the Skills Funding Agency via Hair Academy South West, based in Taunton, which acts as the academy’s prime provider. Hallaran explains: “It’s a large academy and under its umbrella are small academies like us; we’re too small to be given the money directly.” The academy has developed a reputation in the local areas, and Hallaran says she often receives calls from other salon owners looking for new therapists.

“I don’t think we would have got as far as we have without growing our own team,” says Hallaran, adding: “We take them on at 16 and mould them, which means when I put them into a site where I’m not present all the time, I absolutely know that the treatments will be amazing and clients will walk out happy, having made their next appointment. For me, it’s peace of mind.”