Are foreign workers the answer to filling the KBB skills gap?

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The shortfall in the number of skilled installers able to meet consumer demand is something that BiKBBI has long highlighted as a major issue for our industry. For many years we have been warning of the consequences of not investing in efforts to bring new people into installation, and over the last three to four years we have unfortunately seen some of those consequences come in to effect.

To put it bluntly, there are not enough skilled installers ready to meet consumer demand for KBB installation. This is not only bad news for customers but is bad for all businesses that have a vested interest in the KBB industry, whether that be manufacturers, distributors, retailers, designers or indeed installation businesses. Aside from not having competent and compliant installers available when needed, skills gaps, by their very nature, create opportunities and sadly, opportunities often attract opportunists – and we all know the risk that unscrupulous opportunists present to industries like ours.

In the recent Spring Budget, the Government went some way to addressing this challenge by announcing that construction workers are to be added to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), paving the way for employers to sponsor workers from overseas.

Whilst this initiative offers a potentially useful short-term fix to KBB businesses specifically operating within construction, or for those employing installers in a PAYE capacity, this does nothing for most of the retrofit market, sub-contracted relationships or consumers wanting to connect with installation SMEs directly. The relaxation of visa rules will not deliver the much-needed KBB installation enterprise to the UK, nor will it do much to gain back the sheer loss of labour that disappeared back home post Brexit, or replenish the labour that grew old, retired, and left the industry.

The government needs to tread carefully with the visa initiative. Foreign workers will bring much-needed skills and capacity, but employers need to consider language barriers, cultural differences, existing UK standards and legislation, as well as potential issues related to workers’ rights and general labour standards. Employers hiring foreign workers through visa programs should ensure that they comply with all applicable labour laws and regulations and provide adequate support and training to help foreign workers integrate into the local workforce – but remember, this is only applicable to employed labour – for those who sub-contract, it is not even an option.

It is also the case that relying on overseas workers is not a long-term solution to the skills gap crisis, with changes in immigration policies or economic conditions likely to impact the availability of foreign workers over time. To ensure the long-term health of our industry we need to keep the focus on investing in training a new generation of home-grown installers.

The ‘perfect storm’ situation that we are in, caused by a long-term lack of investment in vocational careers/apprenticeships, Brexit, and the pandemic, has been a wakeup call for many and the metaphorical equivalent of the plaster being ripped off the festering wound. Simply parachuting labour in short term will simply place a fresh plaster on what is a real problem.

That is why BiKBBI is committed to keeping up the momentum with its ground-breaking apprenticeship programme and support package. And it is why the industry needs to get behind it as a matter of urgency.

The Level 3 Fitted Interiors Apprenticeship has been available for some years now, and shortly after its launch, BiKBBI identified several blockages that ran the risk of the qualification failing before it had even been established. In response, BiKBBI launched its Skills+ service in October 2021 – a set of solutions that brought together a network of approved training providers with a wider package of support that enabled installers to take on apprentices without having to deal with some of the more complex elements associated with taking on an apprentice; recruitment, employment and training complications.

Thanks to a promotional campaign made possible via support from BiKBBI corporate sponsors, accelerated by a sizable investment from Quooker, the demand from prospective apprentices was incredible, with more than 300 applicants showing an interest in KBB installation careers.

However, thus far the number of installation businesses stepping forward to take on an apprentice has been disappointing. This is where the real problem now exists, despite the misconception that the ‘TikTok generation’ are not interested in getting their hands dirty – which simply is not true.

Even with a high demand for work and a simple, low-cost route to take on an apprentice, not enough installers are stepping up. There are probably a few reasons why, from a reluctance to take on additional wage commitments to a lack of understanding about the value of apprentices. As an industry, we all need to think about how these challenges can be overcome.

No idea should be off limits. For example, could retailers somehow share the financial burden of paying apprentice wages? Could a retailer incentivise its workforce to embrace the building of a future generation of installers? Could more major suppliers join the likes of Quooker to help promote the benefits of apprentices and how our scheme helps with recruiting and managing them? And could the Government introduce tax incentives, or adaptions to the Levy framework, that recognise the commitment of small installation businesses that do invest in apprenticeships?

These are the types of questions our industry should be asking of itself to ensure that we have a sustainable future. We need to see no stone left unturned in encouraging installation businesses to grasp the opportunity to expand their business as well as helping to develop the talent of the future.

In June 2023, BiKBBI will be increasing its focus on learning and development. BiKBBI Futures will present a number solutions, housed in one place, to aid industry adoption. It will outline a three-pronged strategy focused on apprenticeships, CPD and retraining, with apprenticeships being simplified further to help installers understand the benefits in greater detail.

BiKBBI CEO, Damian Walters commented ‘BiKBBI has been vocal on the subject of the skills shortage for over a decade, and I have been clear about the role the institute can play in helping the industry help itself. Now is the time for the whole sector to step up and I invite every single business in the sector to get in touch to find out how they can get involved.’

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