Skills bill: use it or lose it

Damian Walters, the CEO of the British Institute of Kitchen Bedroom and Bathroom Installation (BiKBBI), explains why the industry must support vocational learning and its new apprenticeship scheme to avoid losing Government funding.

Okay, so Damian banging on about vocational learning isn’t a new tune but, as we’ve moved into 2022, it’s clear that the industry is taking installation far more seriously – and that’s something I welcome with open arms, of course.

Many question the Government’s actual commitment to vocational learning, but I believe they’re doing a decent job at financing the initiative and have more recently started the process of legislative change.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill passed a Parlia-mentary milestone in October as it transitioned from the House of Lords to the Commons on its legislative journey. The bill rightly puts an emphasis on training following the skills needs of employers. It is, after all, employers that will have the keenest sense of the expertise and ability that their future employees will need to demonstrate throughout their careers. 

In recognition of this, the bill sets the requirement of employers and colleges working together to determine local skills needs and plan accordingly to meet them. 

It’s vital that arrangements that emerge to meet this requirement fully accommodate the views of the small businesses that will provide so many of the opportunities over the coming years. By their very nature, the bodies that tend to develop in response to national policy changes are all too often dominated by big businesses with the loudest voices and the resources needed to have an influence. 

Important as those undoubtedly are, they are far from the most significant drivers of growth in the UK economy. Businesses with fewer than 49 employees made up over 90% of UK firms at the start of 2020, employing 13.3 million people and turning over £1.6 trillion. Conversely, big businesses with over 250 employees made up just 0.1% of the total business population. The Conservative government, in agreement with Labour back in 2016, referred to SMEs as the “backbone of the British economy”, which for me validates the importance of this statistic and indeed the new bill.

With this kind of economic significance, the skills needed for the industries these small businesses make up, like the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom installation sector that our institute represents, should arguably be prioritised. This is particularly true con–sidering the looming skills crisis that these industries face. In our case, this is arising as a rapidly escalating lack of skilled tradespeople able to meet consumer demand. Put bluntly, there are just not enough skilled installers to keep up with the current boom in consumer demand for home improvements. This means customers are having to wait months instead of weeks for new kitchens and bathrooms to be installed – but worse still, the impact from this pressure placed upon the industry is likely to send ripples of disruption across the KBB world for years.

Unfortunately, this lack of skilled tradespeople is part of a long-term trend. Not enough young people have been encouraged to enter industries like ours, despite the prospect of the high-earning, stable career that it offers. We’ve got by for far too long with an ageing workforce that is now looking forward to retirement. Research conducted by BiKBBI recently revealed that more than a third of installers are making retirement plans. This should be viewed as a stark shot across the bow and one that cannot be ignored. 

Apprenticeships are the obvious answer to this issue, giving young people a route to build skills and a foothold in the industry. However, the time and effort needed to recruit and manage an apprentice, not to mention navigate what can be a complex regulatory and funding process, is daunting to very small businesses. This is where trade institutes and associations need to play a part.

BiKBBI launched an industry-wide apprenticeship programme that provides KBB installers with an easy route to take on an apprentice without having to contend with any of the bureaucracy. Working with a network of strategic partners, including an Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA), end point assessor and a nationwide group of training providers, our programme has created a clear route for young people to come into our industry. 

The investment of time and resources in doing this has come as a direct result of the insight we have into the needs of our industry. I am sure that institutes and associations that service other trades will have developed similar initiatives, based on their own awareness of what is needed. Given the economic importance of these types of businesses, and the opportunities trades provide to make a good living, institutions like ours are an asset that should not be ignored. 

The skills bill is an important step towards the UK valuing vocational education – something that has been long overdue. It is good that employers are going to be at the heart of putting its principles into practice, but every effort needs to be made to ensure that the good employment opportunities on offer to people from every community are supported. This means taking skilled trades seriously by making sure their institutes and associations are involved at every stage.

As for the KBB industry, the Government has been ultra-clear with its ‘use it or lose it’ policy. Institutes are important for all the reasons stated, but unless the industry adopts it, funding for it will be withdrawn – and that is worrying as we have no plan B, and the clock is ticking on this ageing workforce.

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