IMAGINE his parents' despair when Alan Stewart decided to give up a promising career at the Stock Exchange and retrain as a hairdresser.

All thoughts of a high salary and comfortable future for their son must have fallen like hair snipped by scissors and discarded on the floor. They could never have believed that with his wife Linda he would go on to run an operation with a turnover of £6.7 million and a string of salons across Scotland's central belt.

Yet, surprisingly, hairdressing, an industry notorious for low pay and poor conditions, does have some winners. The profits of the Stewarts' award-winning Rainbow Room International are shared among the most talented staff, with some of the best earning more than £70,000 a year.

That figure is one of the surprises of a new fly-on-the-wall documentary series, which starts on BBC Scotland tomorrow. Do Or Dye follows the trials and tribulations of a group of new assistants at the company's Glasgow training academy, the biggest in Scotland, putting more than 80 students every year through their paces. As well as tears, tantrums and an exotic collection of ever-changing hair colours among the 16 and 17-year-olds stepping onto the first rung of the ladder, there is a rare insight into a world we all make assumptions of but actually know very little about.

Let's start with that £70,000 salary, which offers food for thought for those whose views on hairdressing comes with a heavy helping of inverted snobbery. Yes, lowly apprentices, straight out of school, start on a weekly wage of £106.47, barely enough to keep them in shampoo and conditioner. Then a newly qualified stylist goes on to earn £253.50 per week plus monthly and annual bonuses. Salaries continue to rise and, with each level of experience, further education and promotion they earn more. That means top stylists earn £58,000 to £60,000 and salon owners and managers can earn more again.

When we're sitting in one of the training rooms at the academy and I ask the couple why youngsters should think about a career in hairdressing, it suddenly seems a no-brainer. "A year and a half after I started working in the Stock Exchange I was bored senseless, and I still remember the shock of saying to my parents, 'I think I want to be a hairdresser,'" says Glasgow-born Alan with mock horror. "I can remember my father saying, 'How do I tell my mates that?'"

"It has never been work, I would have done it for nothing and in fact I did when I was trying to get an apprenticeship. When you are really skilled you get a tremendous high from seeing people smiling. When you get it right people are appreciative.

"If people are creative and want an outlet for that I think it is the best job in the world."

In a climate of recession and job cuts, hairdressing has proved a fairly resilient industry. Fads and fashions may come and go, technology will constantly update but in the meantime we will all still need a fairly regular haircut.

The modern trend for high street hairdressers only took off in Scotland in the inter-war years. Before then, women styled their hair at home and if they were wealthy enough employed a maid for the task. By the late 1920s the number of hairdressing businesses had started to grow and a trip to the salon was as commonplace as a visit to a tearoom.

Thinking about the opportunities available to talented young assistants, Linda Stewart is clear: "For anyone coming in, it is really up to them what they make of it. It does take a lot of hard work but eventually they can go into a management or teaching job, they can go down the artistic side and travel abroad demonstrating work or they can have their own salon."

Former Rainbow Room International stylists work all over the world and are among the best session workers in the business, including Thomas McIver in New York and James Morrison, who runs a salon in Laguna Beach, California.

Scotland has been a healthy breeding ground for big names in the industry. Paisley-born Trevor Sorbie dropped out of school at 15 and started cutting hair when he was an apprentice to his father. He opened his own barber shop in London in 1969, going on to work for Vidal Sassoon, Toni & Guy and John Frieda. And Paul Mitchell was born in Carnwath, Lanarkshire, where his mother was the village's first hairdresser.

He too worked for Vidal Sassoon in London in the swinging 1960s before going on to set up his own international haircare brand.

Closer to home, Taylor Ferguson still has a salon in Bath Street and after more than 50 years in the business has received a lifetime achievement award. And Penicuik's Denise McAdam went on a journey around the globe after picking up a pair of scissors.

She has been hairdresser to the royal family for more than 30 years, worked in Hollywood and styled models on international covershoots. Don't Forget Irvine and Rita Rusk, who cut a swathe through the hairdressing world in the 1980s and 1990s with their razor-sharp styles.

Assistants Austin Morrill, 17, from Falkirk and Binky McPhedran, 18, from Cumbernauld buy into these dreams. They are among the juniors we see on-screen from their first day 18 months ago at the training academy. Shy and polite, their introduction to the working world involves everything from learning to greet new clients with a firm handshake to mixing hair colour. Asked why they wanted to train as hairdressers, they don't hesitate.

"My mum's friend's daughter worked there and went away to Australia after she qualified. She said the training was really good," explains Morrill. "I started doing work experience and ended up working Saturdays. I went full-time after my exams at school."

"They put a lot of effort into your training," adds McPhedran. "You are thrown in at the deep end, you always think you aren't ready but the stylists know you are."

It might be a highly competitive industry - there are more than 10,000 hairdressers in Scotland - but that does not stop these assistants thinking big. Morrill has ambitions to travel to Australia once he qualifies and set up his own business.

Meanwhile, McPhedran says is keen to stay on at the Buchanan Street salon. "I want to work my way up. Two of the stylists from my salon were nominated for UK Stylist of the Year this year. They are really busy and I want to be like that, with a massive clientele."

While they train they can get a taste of life at the top of the industry in Scotland, working with stylists backstage at T in the Park and the Scottish Fashion Awards. McPhedran points out that if she was in a small, local salon she would never have had the opportunity to style the hair of models walking down the catwalk at the Scottish Fashion Awards, then going out into the crowd to rub shoulders with the likes of Noel Gallagher.

"It was amazing, it was so much fun and I couldn't have done that if I worked elsewhere," she beams.

The woman who keeps their feet firmly on the ground is training director Leigh Kerr. With a bark like a sergeant major and a manner that will take no nonsense, let alone a stray hair or two, she keeps an eye on the fledgling hairdressers as they learn to cut, colour and explore their creative side. If you are in any doubt about the work ethic instilled in them, listen to her speech on their first day. "You won't be off sick, I can guarantee that. Unless you have broken legs or you are highly contagious, you can't be off sick. So don't bother phoning," she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Kerr started hairdressing 18 years ago and worked as Alan Stewart's assistant before helping to set up the academy. She tells students there is no limit to how far they can go if they apply themselves. "Leigh explains how hard the job is and she paints a pretty bleak picture, because it's tough," says Alan Stewart.

Behind that tough exterior, the training director is as passionate about maintaining high standards as she is about her latest batch of young assistants. "They're 16 mostly, straight out of school, have never had a job and a lot of them haven't had to do much at home. They're coming into a world where they now have to do a lot and follow instructions," explains Kerr.

"Our industry is about customer service and to make sure the clients get an amazing service the kids have to do things a certain way. They struggle with it but it's easier to just be upfront with them and tell them: this is the way it is."

A Saturday job at the Buchanan Street salon opened Kerr's eyes and changed her career path, much to her family's dismay.

"My mum was furious, she didn't think hairdressing was a good career choice, she didn't think I was going to make any money. There was a massive family rift and I just dug my heels in and thought, 'I'm going to prove you wrong' and I did," she says proudly.

She never tires of banging the drum to parents and teachers to highlight the fact that hairdressing can be a lucrative industry. "Parents are loath to send their kids to train in hairdressing and it hasn't changed since I left school. They don't understand our top stylists are earning about £50,000 a year," she reasons. "A lot of parents putting their kids off coming into hairdressing aren't earning £50,000 a year."

Working with schools, Kerr talks to careers advisers and teachers about opportunities in the industry. She can't sign up enough young trainees for Rainbow Room International and the situation is the same across the country.

"I'm in a forum with other hairdressing training providers and we meet to discuss everything from the minimum wage to employment law, and every one of us is the same position, we are all struggling," she says. "Employers are knocking our door every day saying: 'We need people'."

Only around 40% of assistants who train at the academy will get a job at a Rainbow Room salon when they qualify. Of those, more than 90% stay with the company, moving up the ranks every year after taking practical courses and making a presentation on who they are, the work they produce and why they deserve promotion. With 12 salons and 250 staff, it is fair to say Rainbow Room International has grown far beyond Alan Stewart's expectations.

When he opened his first salon in Buchanan Street in 1979 he vowed he would only do it once. The Stewarts met when Linda, from Dunoon, started working for Alan. She planned to go to Glasgow School of Art but all that changed with her first Saturday job in a local hairdresser's. After working with Alan she went on to set up the company's second salon and the rest is history.

They clearly have a warm affection for their staff, from the youngest assistants to franchisees and salon owners who seem even more fiercely protective of the brand than they are themselves. Now the couple are nurturing the next generation who have the drive and enthusiasm to be a cut above and could just reach for that top salary.

Do Or Dye starts tomorrow, on BBC1 Scotland, 7.30pm