The Spa Industry Is Suffering From A Skills Gap, Post-COVID

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  • Urban Co-Founder and CEO Jack Tang is lobbying the UK Government to provide greater financial support for massage therapists who are facing a “perfect storm” of COVID-19 and Brexit 
  • 35% of UK massage professionals who operated on Urban’s platform at the start of 2020 have not returned to work since the first national lockdown lifted, despite demand for treatments up 32% on 2019 
  • Tang wants the Government to expand the list of complementary and holistic therapy qualifications covered by the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund 
  • “It is vital that we invest in the education and training of future practitioners now to ensure the sector’s return to growth,” he told Welltodo 

LONDON, United Kingdom — The Co-Founder and CEO of wellbeing booking platform Urban is calling on the UK Government to urgently provide greater financial support for massage therapists who are facing a “perfect storm” of COVID-19 and Brexit. 

Jack Tang, who founded Urban in 2014, told Welltodo the massage therapy sector has been decimated by the past 18 months, triggering a widening skills gap in the wake of the pandemic and exit from the European Union. 

He has joined forces with a coalition of politicians and industry leaders to lobby the UK Government. The coalition wants the Government to expand the list of complementary and holistic therapy qualifications that are eligible for financial support from the National Skills Fund, a £2.5 billion bursary intended to “improve job prospects and support the economy”. 

The fund has been set up to give adults free access to qualifications and courses that will lead to jobs in sectors such as construction, healthcare and education. This offer is part of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in September 2020. 

As it stands, massage professionals’ qualifications are not covered by the fund, which is leading to an increasingly constricted talent pool of practitioners, despite rising demand for wellbeing treatments by those working from home. 

Compared with May 2019, demand on the Urban booking platform is up 32% in May 2021, while therapist availability is down 15%. 

More than a third (35%) of UK massage professionals who operated on Urban’s platform at the start of 2020 have not returned to work since the first national lockdown was lifted. On average, mobile practitioners on Urban lost £4,429 over the 16 weeks of the first lockdown alone. 

“Perfect Storm”

“COVID and Brexit created the perfect storm to decimate the industry,” Tang told Welltodo.

He explained how before COVID-19, the service industry relied heavily on European workers, with 40% of Urban’s network of practitioners being European. When the pandemic struck, many moved into different sectors to earn or went back to Europe. More than a third haven’t returned. 

“This is deeply concerning for us, especially when you see the megatrends developing because of COVID-19,” Tang continued. “More people are staying at home. There’s a greater necessity and need for therapy and treatments. We’re seeing demand is 30% higher in the post-pandemic world.” 

Despite this increasing demand, Tang said a lot of practitioners have been unable to graduate with classes operating at 50% capacity. 

“Complementary and holistic treatments such as these massage therapies are crucial in supporting the health and wellbeing of the population and taking pressure off the NHS,” he said. “Demand for these services from the public is even higher than before the pandemic but the constricted talent pool means the sector is struggling to meet this demand.” 

Jack Tang is lobbying the UK Government to provide greater financial support for massage therapists

Image: Urban

Prior to the pandemic, the hair, beauty and holistic therapy industry generated up to £30 billion to the UK’s economy, Tang said, and in 2018 the contribution from holistic therapy services alone totalled £300 million. 

“We’re having to go grassroots. We’re asking for a set of qualifications for skills such as sports massage to be covered by the National Skills Fund so people who can’t afford it on their own can apply for funding to become therapists. 

“It is vital that we invest in the education and training of future practitioners now to ensure the sector’s return to growth,” he added. 

“Skills gap has been heightened by the pandemic” 

Yvonne Ebdon, General Manager of the UK Spa Association (UKSA) has also campaigned on behalf of the spa and wellness sector to address the skills gap that, she said, has been heightened by the pandemic. 

In a report published in April this year, she called on the industry to “accelerate the development of higher-level qualifications to up-skill the workforce and improve the support of mental health and wellbeing”.

However, she did acknowledge that in February the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education published the wellbeing and holistic therapist standard, approved to apprenticeship level 3 for use in England. 

“It has been specifically developed to support the increased professional standards the industry is moving to and desired by clients, as well as being able to support the delivery of referrals from medical professionals,” she explained. 

“This is also funded by the Government at the increased funding level of £9,000. It is great that we are being seen and heard by the UK Government,” she added. 

“I’m proud of the resilience of our community” 

Urban’s joint campaign for greater support follows a testing year for the company, with revenue 39% down year-on-year. 

The UK Government’s furlough scheme helped Urban’s team of 60 employees weather the initial storm of the pandemic and around 85% of their self-employed therapists were covered by the government’s self-employment income support scheme (SEISS). 

However, that still left 15% who fell through the gaps. To keep them afloat, Urban set up a partnership with a financing company to provide its therapists with a zero-interest loan. “A few hundred people took that up as an offer,” Tang explained. 

Since reopening, new independent practitioners that have joined Urban’s platform — often women working flexibly – have benefited from the pent up demand for treatments, with some therapists earning up to £4,500 in their first four weeks on the platform. 

On average, professionals joining the platform in the last year have taken home £2,000 in their first three months. 

“Our sector was the last to open after lockdown and we couldn’t trade for four months,” Tang said. “Despite that, we navigated well. We pivoted the business model towards digital and have emerged from COVID in a strong position. 

“I’m most proud of the resilience of our community. That shows real brand love.” 

Now Tang and Urban plan to restart a number of “projects around international expansion” that were forced to be put on pause. “There are a lot more similar markets to the UK around the world that we want to explore,” he said.

“We will continue to offer online consultations where it solves a genuine problem for our customers but we’re not competing with Peloton. We’ll be focusing on our core. Online to offline in the home will remain core to our business.” 

The next review of qualifications covered by the National Skills Fund is due to take place in July. Tang is confident of more positive results following promising discussions with Paul Scully, the Minister for Small Business, who he describes as a “champion for the personal care sector”. 

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