We need a new approach to apprenticeships

Simon Taylor, the managing director of Simon Taylor Furniture outlines the importance of apprenticeships to solving the industry’s skills gap and considers whether a KBB-specific programme would encourage more retailers to take on an apprentice

At last year’s KBSA Conference, a poll was taken asking KBB retailers if they would take on an apprentice and 62% said they had no plans to do so. Only 6% said they did. I’m not surprised by these statistics, but we all know that we need to recruit younger people into the sector because it is a great industry to be part of.

I have long been an advocate of apprenticeships, and I have employed apprentices since my business started in 1985. However, mine is not just a retail business. My Buckinghamshire-based bespoke furniture company is split into three parts: design and sales, manufacturing, and installation. I currently have three apprentices who are all on a Level 2 bespoke furniture manufacturing course that I run in association with Rycotewood College in Oxford. This is part work-based at my cabinet workshop, with monthly academic modules held at the college. 

With the knowledge that I have gleaned over the years, I am keen to expand upon the idea of a part work-based and part academic two-year KBB apprenticeship course that focuses on kitchen and bathroom design, one that offers training in CAD, in draughtsmanship, in designing bespoke and pre-made kitchen and bathroom furniture, in basic plumbing, electrics and installation, with a further module based on sales, marketing and administration. 

If an apprentice designer was educated about the difference between designing a kitchen or a bathroom made according to a manufacturer’s specifications, and one that is completely bespoke, it would mean that they would have transferable skills that would make them eminently employable. Some business owners do not take on apprentices because they think that providing training for two years may result in the apprentice leaving and going elsewhere. But that could happen with any new recruit. Over the long term, I believe our mature industry would benefit from having a new generation of skilled individuals that understand what is entailed in working for a KBB retail business, and with a genuine qualification to prove it. 

Retailers are busy people, and I am aware that it can be difficult to access information regarding grants from central or local government without hours of painstaking research. The difficulty is that each council’s grants are different, some with no availability at all. That is where the Government, councils and business groups can help by being more proactive in their communication, and this is a rallying cry to them, to help us.  However, my view is that the system needs overhauling. To make any apprenticeship scheme enticing to a business, there should be a tax incentive set against corporation tax, like how businesses claim capital allowances. 

If we had a KBB-specific apprenticeship scheme, would more than 6% of KBB retailers be interested in recruiting an apprentice?

I currently receive a small apprenticeship grant from the Government, and I pay additional wages, while the Government pays for the college course fees. On a local level, I’m also working with an apprenticeships adviser at Buckinghamshire Business First (BBF). Alongside BBF, our apprentices will host Apprenticeship Awareness sessions in local schools and colleges throughout 2024 to promote the benefits of apprenticeships to teenagers, explaining why they can be of equal importance to obtaining a degree. The only difference is that apprentices are less likely to be saddled with a huge amount of student debt at the end of their course, because they earn while they learn. 

Last year, we independently held our first Appren­ticeship Open Day, which we promoted via the website of the Bucks Herald, on our own website and via social media. It was a success, with 15 local teenagers and their parents visiting the cabinet workshop and meeting our current apprentices. We hired one of them, and this year, we are opening our doors again to recruit another apprentice, this time with an installation focus. 

If we had a KBB-specific apprenticeship with a programme that can be rolled out to higher education colleges, with information made available about how the scheme could work for our industry, would more than 6% of KBB retailers be interested in recruiting an apprentice? I hope so. I am already working on it. 

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