Much has been made of the chronic shortage of skilled trades people across the whole of the construction sector in recent years. It’s a fact well known here in the glazing community. I have spoken with many in the past couple of years who have found finding skilled, high quality installers of windows and doors harder to find than a fair and balanced Donald Trump Executive Order!
All joking aside, I believe our industry is about to reach a critical moment. We’re an industry that continues to grow, yet, I do not believe we have the pools of talent to draw upon in order to facilitate this growth. Installers continue to sign up work, lead times continue to expand, but there is a lack of skilled people around to fit that work. I’m not sure where we go from here. But I do know where to lay a lot of the blame, and that is our education system.
Degree after degree after degree
Back when I was 16 years old and in Sixth Form, all I was told was that University was the way to go. At every corner it was hinted at. Get good A-levels and you could get yourself into University, get a degree and get yourself an amazing job. Thankfully, I was strong minded enough to see through the BS. I found out later that schools get extra funding next time round for every kid they manage to ship off to Uni. It became a little clearer as to why we were being so strongly pushed towards University.
In the end I decided to leave after my first year and ditch the second year to go work for our family run installations business. My school did not like it one bit. In fact there was a distinct lack of interest in me once my teachers found out I wasn’t going to be coming back for my second year. I was practically ignored in most of my classes. Still, that didn’t bother me. And it turned out to be the best decision of my life. I have flourished since and achieved a lot more than perhaps I thought I might, in an industry I never saw myself joining.
However, not once was an alternative offered to me. It was degree or nothing. I was not alone. Not everyone in my year was Uni material, whether they had the grades or not. Yet no Plan B was provided. And it’s this neglect within UK education that is now undermining growth in our very own market. A complete disregard for trades across the whole of construction has led to what I believe to be one of the worst skills shortages for a very long time.
Our education network in the UK has sold a generation of young people a completely unrealistic dream that a degree will be their ticket to a golden livelihood. For some it might be, for many it won’t be. I know many people with degrees, yet are in a profession in no way related to that degree at all. They’re left with debt, and are unable to find work in the sector they studied in. Whilst this is going on, the new generation of trades people required to build our country’s infrastructure, to work in our small to medium sized glazing businesses, simply is not there.
Experienced builders, plasterers, plumbers, electricians, window installers, surveyors, roofers and all other manner of trades person are retiring with very little young blood coming in to replace them. And I see no end in sight.
Where are all the apprenticeships?
I’m sure we all remember the pledge made by David Cameron to create 3 million new apprenticeship places by 2020 by the end of this Parliament. We now have a new PM and Brexit to deal with, but I’ve not seen anything to suggest that this policy is to be scrapped. So, if it’s still alive, where are all these apprentices?
I have seen very little evidence to see that any progress has been made on it at all. The Government, by it’s own legislation, is supposed to create a new register of apprenticeship training centres by May of this year. Well, it’s nearly February, and I’ve not heard anything about it yet. That’s not to say it’s not in the works, but on a policy as important as this, you might imagine we would have had a progress report by now.
Then there is the time afterwards. These three million new apprenticeship places are supposed to be funded by a small levy placed on the UK’s biggest businesses. Say that happens. Say we get to May of this year and we have that register. It would leave us having to create a million new apprenticeships a year for three years up to 2020. Anyone else think that’s unrealistic?
Right now, we probably couldn’t import enough foreign labour to plug the shortfall. So what do we do? Can we do anything? Do we have to accept that we’re going to have to ask less people to do more work? Not an ideal scenario, and frankly probably one that would break a number of health and safety protocols.
Education system absolutely has to step up
The only way this country is going to plug it’s skills gap, and by default help create a new generation of window and door installers is for the education system in this country to refocus on trades in a big way. If it means partnering with systems companies, fabricators, installers and other businesses then great. It would be a brilliant way to introduce 16-18 year olds to the realy world of work with their hands and heads.
However if it doesn’t, this country will fail in a number of key construction areas, including glazing, where we risk sectors grinding to a halt. Not because the investment or demand isn’t there, but because we simply do not have enough of the right people to get the projects out of the ground.
Knowing how the secondary school system has worked in the past, it saddens and frustrates me that schools would encourage young people blindly down a single path, and away from a potentially prosperous and lucrative career in construction, and yes, fenestration too.
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