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Taking trades seriously: why associations and institutes are vital to the success of the Skills Bill

Damian Walters, CEO, British Institute of Kitchen, Bedroom and Bathroom Installation
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The Skills and Post 16 Education Bill passed a Parliamentary milestone last month as it passed from the Lords to the Commons on its legislative journey.

A key sign of the Government’s commitment to vocational education, 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 the  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 last year, 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. 

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 my institute represents, should arguably be prioritised. This is particularly true in light of 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.

Unfortunately, this lack of skilled tradespeople is part of a long term trend. Not enough young people have been encouraged to come into industries like ours, despite the prospect of a high-earning, stable career that it offers. We’ve got by for too long with an ageing workforce which is now looking forward to retirement – with over a third of installers suggesting that they are making retirement plans in a recent survey we ran.

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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, are daunting to very small businesses. This is where trade institutes and associations need to play a part. BIKBBI recently 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 involved. Working with a network of strategic partners, including an Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA), end point assessor and a nation-wide group of training providers, our programme has created a clear-route for young people to come into our industry. 

The investment of time and resource into 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 which has been long needed.

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. 

Damian Walters, CEO, British Institute of Kitchen, Bedroom and Bathroom Installation

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