Gael Thompson - A ‘Cut Above’ Career - Her Story

Looking back over a career of highs and lows, punctuated by moments of hilarity, I realise how good hairdressing has been good to me. As a somewhat direction less teenager in the 1960s I was faced with two choices. My father wanted me to go to university and become a writer, but my mother said ‘learn hairdressing!’

So here I am, 40 years later, writing about hairdressing, and passing on my mother’s advice to the school-leavers of our troubled times. ‘Even if there’s another depression’, she always said, ‘ladies will find a few shillings to have their hair done.’ I don’t wish to bore you with a blow-by-blow description of my career pathway, but I believe the fact it was my hairdressing training that enabled me to survive a major business collapse is a moral for aspiring contenders.

In the 1970s I had moved my safe little hairdressing salon into a historic ex-granary in Lorne Street, renaming it ‘The Cut Above’. The building had been vacant for years, and was in a terrible state, but the gods were smiling as my ex-husband joined me, and we converted all three floors into a swept-up hairdressing emporium: classic ladies’ styling downstairs, a high-class barber-shop on level one, and trendy unisex cutters on the top floor.

It was a bold venture, destined for immediate success – but ultimate disaster. With an eye on the global trend for precision cutting, we sent our style directors to London for Vidal Sassoon training, and watched our clientele change overnight as our charges zoomed from $5 for a ten-minute trim to $35 for a 60-minute restyle.

Good fortune continued through two decades of extravagant décor changes: Louisiana French to Flower-Power (hot pink stripes, drunken shutters and yellow daisies); cobalt-blue to Mediterranean orange: and finally monochromatic slate. Fashion shows, photo shoots, competitions, magazine editorials our creative teams were out there in full force.

We opened five more salons – including a luxurious Hair and Beauty Spa in Remuera – and collectively trained around 300 apprentices. Business was booming, the horror of the ‘87 stock-market crash and our own financial collapse yet to come, and life was good. I was now free to enjoy success my way, realising my father’s dream by completing a MA in English at Auckland University ( which I finally completed with honours in 2010) .

However, when the stock-market crashed in 1987, it took our business down with it. The receivers moved in, closing five of the salons, and forcing us to sell everything we owned, including our home, to avoid bankruptcy. But hairdressing saved the day! The government had recently extended its student loan scheme to vocational training, so we registered our flagship salon as an NZQA accredited academy, designed a syllabus of full-time courses based on the well-proven Cut Above training principles – and the rest is history.

This year, when we celebrated 40 years as an iconic hairdressing brand at the 2011 ‘Academy Awards,’ our 500 graduating students were honoured by the Right Hon. Steven Joyce, Minister of Tertiary Education, and Auckland’s Mayor, Len Brown, both of whom stressed the importance of vocational and creative training to NZ’s knowledge economy.

So looking forward from financial disaster to today, when Cut Above is the NZ’s largest training provider for hairdressing, beauty therapy, make-up and SFX artistry, and production design – I can confidently advise any aspiring contender for a career in these fields to reach out for it.

Forty years have gone by since my mother pushed me into the local salon in response to the notice in the window, Junior Wanted-Apply Within. Hairdressing was her solution to what her teenage daughter could do, but it was also her unrealised dream as well. It’s hard work and low pay at first, but there are great opportunities for creative satisfaction, career advancement, and financial success. It has provided me and my family with a good living – and many moments of fun.

Today it’s much easier to learn hairdressing in New Zealand. There are two NZQA-approved training pathways to a level-four qualification, both of which are equally valid. The NZQA defines level-four capability as recognition that a graduate is ‘ready-to-begin-practice,’ i.e. capable of working with a measure of autonomy, but under broad guidance.

You can attain your level-four qualification in a full-time programme in a registered academy – or through an apprenticeship in an approved salon. The choice is largely dependent on your level of maturity, personality, and individual circumstances. You may thrive in the ‘hands-on’ style of an apprenticeship – but it is important to choose a salon that offers practical training and support.

Alternatively you may be better suited to a full-time, pre-trade course, where you are guaranteed consistent daily training and practical experience. Or you may prefer a combination of both options. (E.g. Some trainees complete one year of a two-year course, and then finish their training in an apprenticeship – or vice versa.)

However, all pathways lead to an equivalent outcome of level-four capability, as defined in the NZQA table below, and the Hairdressing Industry Training Organisation (HITO) moderates all training to ensure everyone is assessing to the same standard.

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After achieving your level-four qualification, the industry offers advanced training to level five –designed to take you further along your career pathway. In addition to salon employment you can fix your long-term sights on overseas travel, fashion catwalk, photo session, film or television styling, excelling in regional, national, and international competitions, business ownership – or ultimately becoming a hairdressing tutor yourself. It’s all there for you to aspire to!