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A Hair Go for All… Time to Stop the Cuts

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill on December 4, 2018 in Other

All is not well in the hairdressing sector, by Sarah O’Hare

So often we find ourselves focusing on the big picture is- sues – open space, urban planning, climate change, global politics. Once in a while we have to take a step back and realise we are simply not seeing what is really important much closer to home. When we do see it, it comes as a bit of a surprise: “How did I not see that be- fore?” Before you start to wonder if I have had some sort of major epiphany, this month I am talking about hair. That’s right, hair!

I recently had one of those lightbulb moments. On a day when travelling between various meetings I was struck by the number of people having or waiting to have their hair done. It seemed that the Eastern Suburbs was literally awash with men, women, girls and boys having their hair trimmed, cut, coloured, straightened, curled, washed and in some cases even sculpted.

For some, checking their watches or nervously staring at the wall, it was clearly a necessary inconvenience. For the majority, however, it seemed to be a happy occasion; an opportunity to catch up on some local gossip, have a chat and maybe chill out and read a magazine. Even for the young boys visiting barber shops, sitting in rows with school mates waiting for the mandatory clean-up before term commenced, the scene was of an established social ritual where the parties bonded, whether they knew it or not. The grunts were meaningful!

Hair is one of our most powerful individual and group symbols. We use it to indicate so much about our beliefs and social tribes. For some it demonstrates our conformity and for others our individualism. Hair loss, for whatever reasons, can be deeply psychologically painful. Hair is an important part of our lives and this has been acknowledged in so many artistic forms.

During the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, hair was a particularly strong symbol of resistance. The Cowsills sang, “Gimme a head with hair, long, beautiful hair.”There was Hair
the screenplay (1968) and then movie (1979), with the fabulous lyrics of ‘Aquarius’. Let’s not forget Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and other greats in the movie Shampoo (1975).

Our hairdressers and barbers are a vital part of our social fabric. Hate it or love it, good hair day
or bad hair day, crave for more or less, hair is at the heart of so much economic and social activity. Australia has about 55,000 hairdressers. Most hairdressers and barbers work in small businesses and the industry generates about $6.5 billion a year. Almost all of us visit one of them on a pretty regular basis, everybody knows a hairdresser and everyone has a favourite. Like death and taxes, tending to our hair is one thing most of us will never avoid in life, so you’d think the hair industry would be one of the safest, both stable and secure.

However, all is not well in the hairdressing sector. Increasingly I hear about the struggle our local hairdressers are having in finding talented young people to join their industry. This is particularly related to the decline in the number of hairdressing apprentices. All of a sudden you start to realise that hairdressing has a lot in common with so many other essential and valued trades across society right now in Australia. The decline in new recruits into the hairdressing trade is directly linked to the across the board cuts made in recent years to the entire TAFE sector in NSW and Australia. No pun intended.

Government supported technical and further education, or TAFE as we now know it, was founded in 1833 in NSW. The era of technical colleges began with the purpose of ensuring that kids, many leaving school in their early or mid-teens in eras gone by, would have a solid foundation upon which to build a career and become productive members of society.

In times before the widespread access to a university education, NSW and Australia were world leading proponents of technical and further education for kids and young adults making their way out into the world. Even as far back as the mid-19th century, Australians realised the value of government owned and run educational institutions. There was recognition across the political spectrum that all members of society would benefit and our economy would prosper if our kids leaving school had decent access to further education.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that technical and further education became a truly universal option for most of our school leavers. However, right up until early this millennium, NSW and Australia had what were regarded as among the world’s best technical education systems. Then the scourge of economic rationalism and blindly ideological competition policy took hold. Governments decided a decade or less
ago, in their infinite wisdom, that private operators would provide better services and educational opportunities for our kids, our brothers and our sisters. Inevitably, when the private sector moved in, governments of certain persuasions started taking the razor to our TAFE system funding.

TAFE, once a world leading training facility, is a shadow of its former self, with its funding having been cut by more than 15 per cent between 2007 and 2016. Since 2014, the NSW Government has cut over $130 million from TAFE NSW in the form of staffing redundancies and restructuring costs, with a further $8.8 million in cuts budgeted for this year. No wonder there has been a drastic drop in TAFE enrolments of 40 per cent in 2017 alone and a further 13 per cent over the last year!

It’s great to move forward, but sometimes when things aren’t working as intended it can be time to look back at what worked well in the past. There is no shame in admitting a government run and funded technical education system – TAFE – was the best model in helping our kids grow into the best tradespeople in the world. So there should be no shame in returning to the system that worked.

At the risk of sounding a tad selfish, who will do our hair? Oh, and fix our plumbing, keep the lights on, repair our cars? Oh, and paint the school, fix the boats, staff our childcare centres and cook the delicious meals in our local cafes and restaurants? Let’s stop the cuts and let our TAFE system grow back to being the best in the world.

Dr Marjorie O’Neill is a Waverley Councillor. The views expressed here are her own, although we generally agree with them.