Luke Wedgbury: “Stop pointing the finger at small independents!”

Many have suggested apprenticeships as the answer to the ongoing skills gap crisis, but Luke Wedgbury, founder of Coalville Kitchens, argues that there are other ways for retailers to help solve the problem

How often have you read that we have a big skills shortage in the KBB industry, and been told it’s on you to do something about it? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a part in it, but what I am saying is… it’s not all on you!

Yes, we have a skills shortage for sure, but constantly being told you have to take on an apprentice is, in my view, a little dated. It puts pressure on independent businesses at a time when survival is probably in the forefront of most KBB retailers’ minds.

I was lucky enough to be asked to join the “Big Debate” on stage at last year’s KBSA conference. The learning from the event was incredible, but the biggest takeaway for me was some valuable perspective. Questions around training and education ultimately always seem to lead back to “apprentices” and “young blood in the industry”, yet when a room full of KBB business owners was asked, only around 10% were even considering taking on a young apprentice.

Why? Because it’s a massive pain in the proverbial! I’m not talking about the recruitment process, there’s an abundance of apprenticeship providers who, in my opinion do an outstanding job of helping you find and recruit. What I’m talking about is the process of training an apprentice and the cost to your business. 

A typical KBB retailer has perhaps got one to three members of staff who are at capacity on their daily activities, whether that be sales, design, admin or install. Take one member out of that team and the whole thing becomes very difficult to manage and sustain any kind of profit (yes, I used the dirty word!).

When a company of this size takes on an apprentice, that is essentially what happens. You need a member of that small team to teach someone with no experience. And with it being an official accreditation you have the added pressure of time scales and even losing the apprentice one day a week for studies.

So history has taught us it’s difficult and we should just all give up, right? Wrong! 

In my experience, the bigger companies within our industry are able to dilute the effect taking on an apprentice has and it can be a huge success. It’s brilliant and I congratulate the companies who are doing it.

But for studios, I’m a big believer in thinking that “new blood” doesn’t always mean “young blood”! For example, I have a showroom manager with over 10 years’ experience, but when she first joined us, she had a previous career that was in no way connected to the KBB sector. We employed her as a showroom assistant and trained her over a number of years in every part of the business, and now we are reaping the rewards.

When we employed this person, she was simply another employee. It was very straightforward with no red tape and we had the added benefit of her being of a certain age and posessing all the life skill that comes with that. But still: new blood to our industry.

We have also hired a “kitchen fitters’ mate”. This person was young and didn’t want to go to college and couldn’t find the right apprenticeship for them. We employed them as a helping hand to our install teams, to observe, learn, gain experience and one day  be able to install kitchens to a very high standard. For us, this was again an easy process but I understand it won’t necessarily suit everyone and there are no official qualifications involved. Still, again: new blood.

So what options do we have? The answer will depend on your specific business. Does your business (as it stands) have any needs? Maybe the question is sometimes not how should you employ but who in your business can you up-skill? Is an apprentice the answer to that need? What happens if “we” don’t bring in new blood to our industry?

There are lots of questions and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but one thing is for sure, we can all contribute in our own way by thinking differently and serving our own needs. The skills gap won’t fix itself, but history teaches us that supply and demand dictates market conditions, and this industry has a network of great thinkers who are able to solve these challenges.

So let’s employ, train, upskill, teach and do what we can to fix this skills gap… but please stop pointing the finger at small independents. It’s not our fault.

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