A recent speech by the head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) shone a spotlight on hairdressers, whom he described as being in a field that had "successfully upgraded", earning relatively good wages, compared with the past.
At the Singapore Perspectives 2018 conference late last month, Mr Ravi Menon, managing director of MAS, said hairdressers in Singapore are doing "amazingly well".
"They earn much closer to the median wage (82 per cent) compared with their counterparts in Australia, the US and the UK (32, 68 and 44 per cent)," Mr Menon said.
The median gross monthly income from the work of Singapore residents in full-time employment was $3,749 as of June last year, statistics from the Ministry of Manpower show. The median gross wage of a hairdresser was $3,099 as of June 2016, going by the latest figures available.
Official data shows that the hairdressing trade is growing and observers say there is room to take in high earnings with healthy demand for more diverse hair services.
Hair-salon owner Jeanie McLean, 37, says: "People are more willing to pay to look good. Even men are spending more money on grooming."
There's no documentation to say this is a qualified hairstylist or a leading hairstylist. There's no licensing or regulation.
MR SIMON LEE, founder of the Hair & Cosmetology Association (Singapore) (Hacos), on issues of concern in the hairdressing industry
At Urban Tress Salon in King Albert Park, she offers a range of services, such as hair straightening, neon highlights and ombre hair colouring, where one hue blends into another.
But beneath this shine and gloss lie hairy issues that impact consumers, according to industry veterans interviewed by The Sunday Times.
Income earned from business operations in the hairdressing industry rose from $338.4 million in 2014 to $401.1 million in 2016, an increase of 18.5 per cent in two years, according to figures from the Singapore Department of Statistics.
Mr Simon Lee, founder of the Hair & Cosmetology Association (Singapore) (Hacos), notes, however, that earnings can range widely.
He estimates that a seasoned hairstylist can earn about $10,000 a month and that even higher incomes can be made by big-name veterans or salon owners who charge a few thousand dollars for hair services.
In contrast, entering the trade as an apprentice, who starts off shampooing hair and preparing chemical hair treatments, can mean a meagre wage of $1,200 a month, an amount that discourages newbies from seeing a future in the trade, says Mr Lee, 52.
He says that earnings can fluctuate widely because of a common industry practice: Many workers are paid a basic wage and earn commission, determined by the salon they work in, for their hairdressing services, as well as for products they sell to their customers.
This means that ultra-low prices for hairdressing services - a bugbear for many of the hairstylists interviewed - can be compensated by commission earned, adds Mr Lee. He cites a haircut that costs less than $4 as an example of a below-average price.
Some hairstylists seek to earn more commission by hard-selling their clients packages that offer a set of pre-paid hair services, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. This has potential implications for consumers pressured into buying such packages.
Mr Lawrence Koh, 57, founder of Le Salon Prive in Lucky Plaza shopping centre, says: "It's quite messy. Customers may be asked to take up unnecessary hair treatments."
Mr Koh, who does not offer such packages at his salon, has 40 years' experience in hairdressing.
In 2015, a hair salon chain closed down, leaving hundreds of consumers with unused packages that they had paid for.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received close to 500 complaints that year about hair salons, including around 200 complaints from customers of The Scissorhands and its affiliate Shizahanzu, the chain which shut abruptly in August 2015, reports said.
The following year, in 2016, Case and Hacos signed a memorandum of understanding for an accreditation scheme for the hair industry to prevent a repeat of such incidents.
Salons that sign up voluntarily have to meet strict criteria, such as training staff not to hard sell and having appropriate hygiene guidelines.
One of the salons that signed up for this accreditation last year was Tresses Studio in Ghim Moh.
Its director, Mr Kenny Chew, 52, who has been in the business for 30 years, says he sought the accreditation so that his customers would feel more secure.
For instance, the products he uses at his salon are all approved for use by the Health Sciences Authority. Unlike some other salons, his does not use keratin hair-smoothing treatments that have formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
Another concern in the hairdressing industry is professionalism, insiders say.
Hacos' Mr Lee says there is a lack of regulation for hairdressers, who do not need a licence to practise.
"There's no documentation to say this is a qualified hairstylist or a leading hairstylist. There's no licensing or regulation. For hawkers, for example, they have A, B, C, D grades, indicating hygiene standards, but we don't have such standards in the industry," he says.
Other hairdressing veterans, however, are optimistic about the continued growth of the industry.
"Our services have grown a lot. We have more knowledge," says Mr Gary Chew, 44, founder and director of Mi the Salon and the Salon Vim outlets.
He cites services such as balayage, a technique where dye is painted on the hair for a graduated effect; treatments that protect hair cuticles and hair contouring, which is inspired by contouring make-up and purportedly accentuates or softens one's facial features.
Young people, from the age of 18 to the early 20s, are driving demand for "experimental looks" involving unusual hair colours, but older professionals are a more significant factor in the industry's boom, he says.
"This demographic are those already on a career path, who are aged from their 20s to 40s. They want to look fresh at work," says Mr Gary Chew, who has designed hair treatments, offering gloss and body, for his business.
He also offers personalised scalp treatments, as well as manicure and pedicure services while customers get their hair cut.
Such diversified services are "one of the ways to innovate the salon business", he says, adding that the secret to good business is to treat customers well. "You have to learn the craft and you also have to wait on people. It's about emotions and how the clients feel."
She could earn $6,000 in 'a bad month'
In her 16 years in the hairdressing trade, Mrs Jeanie McLean, 37, did well - a bad month for her would mean $6,000 in earnings.
The mother of one, who recently opened her own hair salon, started as a shampoo girl at the age of about 20, after completing a course in a hairdressing school.
Within six months, she had progressed to cutting hair and soon had a regular pool of clients.
After a few years working full time at a Far East Plaza salon, Mrs McLean switched to a part-time role to spend more time with her daughter, now aged 11. The Singaporean is married to a 40-year-old Scottish businessman.
Back then, even working three days a week, from 11am to 8.30pm, earned her at least $6,000 a month. Occasionally, she even earned $12,000 a month, she says.
During peak periods such as the run-up to Chinese New Year, she could earn $18,000 a month, she adds.
The sale of packages, services pre-sold in bulk to customers at a discounted price, helped her earn such wages as she received a commission rate of 30 per cent of the total sales.
It is not unusual, says Mrs McLean, for women here to have a couple of such packages and visit a salon twice a week for services such as hair cutting, colouring, washing and blow-drying, or hair treatments.
"My clientele introduced me to their friends and I gained clients through such word of mouth," she says. "Once you prove your skills to your clients, they trust you. They know you are not trying to rip them off."
It helps that she is a "good listener", she says.
Sometimes, women come to the salon not because they need their hair cut but because they need some space for themselves or to talk, she says.
Mrs McLean, who says she is ready to work harder now that her daughter is older, set up her own salon, Urban Tress, at King Albert Park in October last year.
She charges $45 for a cut, wash and blow dry and highlights start at $150.
Last month, the salon earned a net profit of $10,000, she says, adding that running a business has always been her goal. She still has clients from the time she started 16 years ago.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Cutting-edge profession'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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