Taking it to the next level

Dr Tony Smart MBE, senior warden and member of the education and training committee at The Furniture Makers’ Company, talks about the steps that need to be taken to help attract more young people into a KBB-based career

The biggest challenge facing all sectors within the furnishing industry over the next decade is a skills shortage, and to ensure our industry prospers, we need to address the issue now.

It has been clear to The Furniture Makers’ Company, the furnishing industry’s charity, for some time that all sectors within the furniture and furnishing industries, including the KBB trade, aren’t attracting enough young people into employment.

This recruitment problem has been compounded by companies being unable to suitably train those employees they do attract, due to a severe lack of appropriate training.

Changes in higher education, with universities now having to manage their own finances, has also led to established courses being disbanded, workshops being closed and furniture-based courses being amalgamated under general product design.


Tony Smart
Tony Smart

Our fears were confirmed when the Company and the Furniture Industry Research Association (Fira) initiated an industry-wide survey in 2014 to gather evidence of the state of training and skills, which resulted in the 2015 ‘Mind the Gap’ report.

This report coincided with the launch of the Government’s Trailblazers apprenticeship scheme, which called upon employer-led groups from different industries to develop fit-for-purpose apprenticeship standards that would meet current and future requirements in all occupational areas, with the various ‘pathways’ being flexible enough to harmonise with multiple sectors.

A couple of years on and the Trailblazer initiative has already resulted in considerable gains being made on the training and education front. Through the collaboration of more than 40 companies working together, 10 Level 2 apprenticeship standards were last year given ministerial approval.

These standards, regulated by Occupational Awards Limited (www.oawards.co.uk), cover furniture manufacture through to foam conversion. Those that will be of particular interest to the KBB sector will be the Fitted Furniture Installer, Wood Machinist and CNC Specialist standards. These are now available to the industry together with assessment plans and awards.

However, it’s not too late for pathways to be developed to cover the requirements of the KBB sector.

For this to happen, they will need to be agreed by a representative group across the sector in conjunction with appropriate colleges or training providers to support them. We’re already in talks with relevant organisations, including the British Institute of Kitchen Bedroom and Bathroom Installation (BiKBBI) and the Kitchen Bathroom Bedroom Specialists Association (KBSA), as to how these can be progressed.

Professional development cannot stop at Level 2, though. So a new industry steering group is being set up and it is important that all sectors, including the KBB sector, are represented in order for the standards to adequately cover all requirements.

Currently, seven standards have been proposed for Level 3, which will be applicable to all sectors of our industry. The most relevant for the KBB sector, however, are Design Technician, New Product Developer and Advanced CNC Specialist.

It’s vital that the furnishing industry comes together to ensure that we have a clear, collaborative approach to ensure that Government and the wide range of training and skills providers, from schools through to universities, understand what is required.

To address the issues of attracting and retaining young people, The Furniture Makers’ Company is setting up an Industry Education Forum to facilitate continued dialogue between training providers and colleges, awarding bodies, trade associations and representatives from industry.

The first forum will happen in the first half of 2017 and we are encouraging representatives from all sectors of the industry, including the KBB sector, to attend.

The issues and opportunities pertaining to training and skills requirements raised during the forum will then be communicated to the Government through the British Furniture Confederation – a collaboration of six associations that act as a single voice to Government.

One issue – or opportunity – that’s coming down the pipeline that industry needs to be aware of is the apprenticeship levy that the Government is introducing in spring this year.


As of April 6, employers operating in the UK with a salaries bill of more than £3 million a year will be required to contribute 0.5% of that wages bill to the new levy.

The aim of the levy, which will raise £2.5 billion for apprenticeships by 2020, is to boost the number of people of all ages able to gain skills and experience, and to improve the overall skills of the workforce.

The training costs for these large employers will be funded from the levy, so it will be in their interests to maximise their training in line with their growth plans for the future.

The vast majority of employers will not be eligible to pay the levy and these employers will benefit from government support to pay for apprenticeship training, with the charge likely to be around 10% of what it costs to train each apprentice.

The levy payment will also cover short courses, where there is a need for up-skilling to cover new technology or changes in job function.

Change to the status quo, such as this new levy, always brings with it a feeling of trepidation – a fear of the unknown. But this new levy is a great opportunity for companies to take advantage of, and invest in, their current and future staff, so we can up-skill employees and help our industry thrive.

  • For more information about the Industry Education Forum, please email [email protected]
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