Installer shortages: ‘It’s going to be a disaster…’

The sudden demand has flagged up an issue that has dogged the KBB industry for decades – there is a severe shortage of qualified installers. This is a message Damian Walters of the BiKBBI has politely tried to push for years but, he says, the industry just isn’t listening. So it’s time to say what he REALLY thinks….

The high demand that flooded the market when retail was allowed to open, following lockdown, was an unexpected opportunity to make up for lost time, but it was hamstrung by a problem that has plagued the market for years – there just aren’t enough talented and qualified installers.

For Damian Walters, chief executive of the British Institute of KBB Installations (BiKBBI), the response can be summed up with a simple “well, duh….”

Walters has busied himself during the 14 years since the BiKBBI began politely trying to draw attention to his simple message – the KBB industry needs to have long-term plans for installation standards, education
and recruitment.

But the lockdown has changed his view – politeness, he clearly believes, hasn’t worked and he needs to be much more stark in his language. The industry, he says, is sleepwalking into a catastrophe


Q: Is the skills shortage holding back recovery?

A: Without the shadow of a doubt. We’re all worried about what’s going to happen next year, but we’ve got to deal with the here and now – and it is really quite simple. This situation has magnified an existing problem and actually puts a blockade in front of that recovery, because we just haven’t got enough people to meet the demand.

But we didn’t before either – we spread it out over a year and we fumbled by, but six months of pent-up demand has exposed a problem that already existed.

Q: For today, is it about the literal number of installers or the number of good, qualified ones?
A: At the moment, it’s just a simple lack of people that operate in the marketplace – good or bad. There is a massive shortfall between the demand and the number of installers available. That leaves a gap for opportunists and standards fall, reputations are damaged and consumer confidence is destroyed. It then becomes a race to the bottom in terms of price and the good fitters in the middle are the ones affected.
That’s very real, that’s not me looking into a crystal ball and thinking the worst. This has happened before. That’s going to be our biggest challenge. It’s not customers having to wait a few more weeks for their kitchen, it’s about the potential for real damage at a time when we need recovery.

Q: You’ve always used robust language to outline the problem, but you’re starting to use words like ‘catastrophe’ to paint a much more serious and devastating scenario…
A: It’s easy for people to forget about it until the point where it’s really, really serious and becomes a real problem. This isn’t going away. It’s getting bigger. And actually what we’re currently facing is going to make it worse. It is strong language because I really, genuinely, fear for the industry and people don’t get it.
I don’t mean that in an insulting or patronising way, but people just don’t get it. Suppliers and manu­facturers are thinking, ‘well, we don’t do the fitting’, and retailers are going, ‘well, I’ve got enough fitters and maybe I could do with one or two more’.

But, for the current situation, it’s all the stuff that will happen around it that’s the issue. It’s the tsunami after the earth­quake that’s going to cause the real damage.

Q: What kind of damage are we looking at?
A: Let’s look at a real example. The Government has done a massive U-turn on incenti­vising environmental products like solar panels for your home. The only reason it didn’t work is because opportunists came in, took liberties, took the money and ran. Now the Government are left to mop up the mess and they’re doing it via a new Energy Ombudsman.

We’re no different and it’s a real shame that people are not taking it seriously. I never ever want to be in a position where I say, ‘I told you so’. I will get no comfort or pleasure from that at all.

Q: It seems like it should be a very equitable system – someone makes the product, someone else sells it, and then someone else installs it. You can’t have one without the other two, so if it’s such an issue, how does that manage to function?
A: No, it doesn’t make sense, but this isn’t a new thing. When you’ve got lots of customers and everything’s good, and we haven’t got pandemics or Brexit or everything else that’s been thrown at us this year, then it’s just about OK, because you operate on the numbers – ‘well most of it’s going all right, the little bits that aren’t all right, we’ll get around’.

But when you’ve got the situation that we face now, which is a perfect storm, it’s going to kill us. It’s absolutely going to kill us and you can already see it starting to happen. Requests for inspections are starting to go up already and that’s just the beginning. This is will come and hit us like a like a tonne of bricks.

Q: Is that a sign that unqualified and inexperienced people are starting to do the work?
A: Absolutely. There are some industries out there that haven’t bounced back quite like ours has. There are people being made redundant and losing their jobs and they’re all wondering how they’re going to pay the mortgage.

Well, you know, the home improve­­­­ment sector is going all right, how difficult can that be? They’ll come through, they’ll start causing problems, and they’re the nice guys with pretty genuine intentions. When you throw in the rogues who swoop in and fleece the consumer, that’s when it really starts causing major reputational damage – and I promise you it’s coming.

Q: Is the problem that when the issue is at its most acute and obvious, there is no short-term solution?
A: There is no short-term solution now and there hasn’t been one for decades. You have to put several pieces of strategy together to tackle it. And no matter what we do now, no matter what the institute does or what the industry does, it is facing a challenge because of the long-term lack of investment in training, development and apprenticeships.

We are going to hit it no matter what we do right now. What we’re talking about is lessening that impact, not avoiding it. Because we can’t avoid it, it’s coming.

What we can say, though, is that if we don’t want this to happen again in five, 10 or 15 years’ time, we have to act now. We have to take a really proactive view of change. And there might be some quick wins that lessen the impact, but we’re not going to avoid it.

Q: How hopeful are you that the industry will remember that impact when the current demand eases and therefore the effect of the installer shortage eases?
A: We’ve seen it all before. There are peaks and troughs of activity throughout the year anyway. When it’s bad, everybody feels the pain, but as customer demand drops off because of the time of year, we all start to breathe out and think everything is OK and the cycle begins again the following year.

Q: So what’s the answer?
A: It’s really difficult, because the call to action that we put out is ‘stand up and be supportive’.
But at some point, the hand is going to go up and we’ll ask ‘who’s paying for this?’. The Government aren’t going to pay for it, the EU aren’t going to pay for it anymore – and they were putting some money in the pot before.

So the only people left are the ones it affects the most, and that’s those in the KBB industry itself. But are they going to do that? Going on past experience, I think, sadly, the answer is no.

Q: What’s stopping brands supporting the installer section of the industry in the way that they, say, support qualifications and training at the design end?
A: We don’t operate at the glamorous end of the market, so it’s just not as appealing from a PR perspective, I suppose. But it’s ironic, because it’s the installers that make it glamorous. You can have a fantastic product, but fit it like an ape and it will look absolutely disgusting.

Similarly, you can buy the cheapest stuff off the shelf in any dusty DIY shop and fit it properly and it looks a million dollars.

But people don’t make that connection between all that lovely stuff that goes on in the industry and what is perceived to be the really dirty end of it.

They never have.There is a disconnection and it will be to the detriment of the entire industry if they keep ignoring the subject of supporting apprentice­ships for fitters.

It’s going to be a disaster.

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