Head of the Class
Overcoming Staffing Challenges Through Relationships with Local Schools
by Josh Corman

It's likely that few industries can match the spa industry when it comes to the particular challenges it faces regarding its workforce needs. ISPA research indicates that as of 2019, the number of unfilled service provider positions in the U.S. spa industry alone was roughly 28,000, split about evenly between full- and part-time employees. Though it is as yet unclear what effect the losses and possible attrition suffered by the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic have had on that figure, it stands to reason that the talent shortage has only become more pronounced in the last 14 months or so.

Massage therapist positions made up the largest portion of the shortage reported in 2019, comprising more than 17,000 (8,320 full-time) of the unfilled spots. Estheticians accounted for about 7,000 unfilled positions (3,980 full-time), followed by nail technicians with just over 4,000 (1,810 full-time). Given the total number of estimated positions in the industry at that point, unfilled positions represent about seven-and-a-half percent of the entire spa (not only service provider) workforce.

By any measure, the sheer volume of unfilled positions in the spa industry is an issue that spa leaders are eager to address. ISPA’s own recognition of this truth led to the planning of a Talent Symposium event originally scheduled for April of 2020 before being canceled due to the pandemic. In the year-plus since, spa leaders around the world have grappled with a host of new and unforeseen pandemic-related challenges, and questions revolving around the talent pipeline and industry workforce have been, if not set aside entirely, then at least moved to the back burner while these new issues commanded more attention.

But with the proverbial light at the end of the pandemic tunnel comes into view, the spa industry is once again ready to confront those workforce challenges head-on. One of those challenges is simply assessing the state of the spa industry workforce at this stage of the pandemic to determine what where things stand after more than a year of closures, reopenings, staff reductions and attrition. If what Kelleye Martin, ISPA board treasurer and spa director at The Edgewater Spa, has seen holds true for the industry at large, the talent landscape may be even tougher to navigate than before the pandemic.

“I actually think this is worse than pre-pandemic for staffing,” Martin says. “I think a lot of people have just left the industry, not just in spa, but in hospitality in general because we’re facing this all over our property. I mean, I definitely need massage therapists and nail techs, which I always have, but we would get applicants that would trickle in pre-pandemic, but now we’re not—it’s like a ghost town. We’re not getting people, so that’s a huge challenge because that’s our workforce.” Martin adds that she’s responded by reaching out to former employees and applicants as need has increased, with little success. COVID-19-related hesitancy, she concedes, may also be a contributing factor. “I’ve got some people that haven’t returned to work also. They’re waiting for more people to be vaccinated,” she says.

In the face of seemingly dire circumstances, there remain a number of steps spa leaders can take to cultivate a pipeline of talent. In almost every case, that means reaching well beyond the limits of job posting sites such as LinkedIn or Indeed. For Mandy Warr, owner of the Remedy Day Spa in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one such step has been cultivating a relationship with local schools. “Just like everyone else in the industry, we were definitely having a hard time keeping a healthy talent pool,” Warr says. “And we actually started to see a lot of the massage schools in the area closing, and that left us with a talent pool that was coming out of either community colleges or for-profit institutions. Their massage programs just weren’t as robust or in-depth as some of the others that we had previously been drawing from.” Warr reached out to some remaining local schools, seeking to make a connection and provide input on what her spa was looking for in massage therapists and estheticians.

Those connections soon evolved into relationships that gave Warr an opportunity to communicate directly with future spa professionals. In addition to speaking to graduating classes about what her spa looks for in applicants, Warr soon took things a step further and was able to establish an internship program with Carrington College, a local university. “With this particular program, it can’t include hands-on work, but it includes being in the spa, learning about the front desk and back of house and how our treatment staff operate,” Warr notes. “It’s been a really good way to connect with people that are coming out of school, get a really good idea of where there skill set is and build relationships.” Warr adds that they’ve also recently worked with Carrington to get accreditation to offer aspiring massage therapists continuing education opportunities for skills they may lack or need to deepen after having graduated. “That’s been a really great relationship we’ve built with Carrington that produces highly skilled staff members. By the time they’re working for us, that relationship is deeply rooted.”

“Relationship” is also a key word for Luba Sasowski, CEO of Bryght, a maker of skin care and lightening products. Sasowski sits on the boards of two esthetics schools—one in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the other in Vancouver, British Columbia—and has found that her role allows for far greater insight into potential hires than she would get from the traditional application and interview process. “If you’re putting something on LinkedIn, or whatever it may be, you’re getting someone at two o’ clock in the morning that’s just scrolling through stuff and hitting the ‘Apply’ button,” she says. “If you can get in front of the people that want to be in the business, your success rate of hiring is going to be far more, but you have to take the time as the owner, director, whoever you are, to relish that relationship, to encourage your team to build relationships with the schools. There is a cost of time in that relationship building, but it’s so valuable and so rewarding because you will get great people from it.”

The cost Sasowski mentions is, of course, real. It takes a considerable amount of time to form and foster the kinds of relationships that are going to yield strong hires. However, the approach may actually represent a more efficient use of time than simply posting to job sites. As Sasowski puts it, “I think as business owners, we don’t value our time enough. [Job sites] seem really easy and really quick, but on the other end of it, I have to go through all these resumes, and more than half of them don’t even qualify for the position that I’m looking for. If someone comes from the school, I’m going to look there before I look at my stack of resumes.”

It isn’t that the top-end candidates from the school are necessarily always better hires than top-end candidates who might apply to an online job posting, notes Sasowski (she has had success hiring both), merely that identifying passionate candidates who fit well in your team is less timeconsuming when they are being drawn from a smaller pool of unquestionably interested prospective employees. At a time when spa leaders have never been pulled in more directions, that kind of saved time can be immensely valuable.

Kelleye Martin puts it even more bluntly: “I think that, wherever you are, if you don’t know your local schools, you’re crazy.” She adds, “You have to put in the time up front,” citing several ways—going to speak to students at an esthetics school, inviting students to tour her spa (virtually or in person, if possible) and visiting massage schools to receive treatments—that she has cultivated connections with potential hires and even begin the process of identifying those who may fit best with her spa. “You can start to see who’s available,” Martin says, “Then you’re there front-and-center when they start looking for a job. They’re like, ‘Oh, I already know somebody there.’”

Another potentially less obvious—but vitally important—benefit of proactively establishing a presence in these institutions is that it can allow spa leaders to offer insight into the kinds of opportunities that the spa industry may present students, even if they may have their sights set elsewhere. “Schools—especially massage schools—don’t always do the best job of talking about spas,” says Martin. “They make it sound like we’re a factory and we only do ‘fluff’ massage—that we aren’t really serious in the massage game. I think a lot of massage therapists go into school, and they want to do this great work and really change the world through massage, and I think that they aren’t always thinking they can do that [in a spa], or that they’re only going to see people once a year or something.” By acting as informational conduit between students and the industry in this way, spa leaders can shape students’ perception of spa to a degree and perhaps even pull a student with no existing designs on a career in spa into the industry’s talent pipeline. For spa leaders eager to broaden their reach and visibility among potential employees in their area, Mandy Warr recommends keeping a couple of things in mind. The first is that it is just as critical to set clear expectations for every stakeholder. “The investment has to be understood across the chain,” Warr says. “I set expectations internally that we’re making this investment with money and resources and time, but then also with the students and interns, setting those expectations that we want you to excel, and it’s going to take a little investment on your end too, to get there. In the end, we’ll all be rewarded because we’ll have this great relationship.”

Warr also stresses the importance of establishing a formal framework for any relationships that a spa forms with a local school, especially if it develops into something like an internship program. “Even if it takes a couple of meetings, sitting down with whoever the stakeholders are between your spa and the school and formalizing that relationship goes a long way,” Warr explains. “It’s easy to form bonds with a certain person, but then what happens is that the person leaves the school or the spa, and then that relationship is gone. So, if you formalize that connection, it has longer ties, so that as those people leave, the relationship is transferred.”

Further advice comes from Luba Sasowski, who urges spa and business leaders to consider approaching the current generation of prospective professionals a little differently. “Gone are the days of, ‘I’m a business owner and I own this great company, and I know the value that I can bring to you, and you should come to me,” says Sasowski. “They want to know what they’re signing up for and what they’re getting in for, so we need to explain to them what value we will bring into their life.”

For the many spa leaders who have found staffing a particular difficult challenge to overcome (pandemic or no pandemic), reaching out to local schools that offer massage therapy, esthetics or other programs related to spa may be an important step on the road to developing a more robust and reliable talent pipeline. Even if the relationship doesn’t become something as involved as an internship program, being able to speak to classes, share materials, answer questions and perhaps participate in a career fair can be great ways to showcase careers in spa, bring talented individuals into the industry and even put a dent in the industry’s talent shortage while you’re at it.