It’s been quite a few years now since the Government made a push for apprenticeships. It was meant to be the start of turning the ship around on a crippling youth and skills shortage that plagued all kinds of construction sectors, including fenestration.

Yet here we are in 2023 and the situation has continued to degrade further, rather than turn itself around. Are we doomed to become a sector that will forever struggle with a lack of labour?

Fenestration’s labour woes

Just in case you were unsure if things were actually getting better on the labour supply front in our sector, the poll I am running on Twitter at the moment probably clarifies the situation:

Less than 5% believe that the labour shortage is getting better, with more than half saying it is getting worse. We probably already knew this though. For years our sector has struggled to turn the tide on the labour and skills shortage. It’s a problem I recognised when I first joined the sector and has really hit home over the last few years. Especially during the boom the industry saw post-lockdown May 20202.

One stat that has always stuck with me is one that Building Our Skills produced a few years ago. They discovered that the sector was set to lose 25% of its workforce over the next decade. That was a few years ago now, so we are comfortably down that road at this point. But just imagine the real-world implications of losing a quarter of your staff and the impact on a business that would have. In short, it’s crippling, and it places even more pressure on companies who are already understaffed.

The reality is that we are simply not filling the positions that are being left vacant by those who are leaving the sector or retiring, with companies across the supply chain being affected.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s not just fenestration that is struggling with attracting people to the industry. Construction in general is suffering in just the same way, with a recent report saying that the sector needs more than 266,000 additional workers by 2026. This is a staggering number and one which is going to be impossible to bridge in just three years.

Such deep shortages hurt a business’s ability to function and grow. I remember well during the boom period within fenestration, installers would complain of being unable to find the extra labour to be able to take on more work during the height of the recovery. This is such as shame as this has held back potential for our sector, which has taken on even more importance now as the market cools off significantly.

How do we solve the problem?

There is no easy fix to this problem from what I can see. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It is going to require a multi-channel approach and one that could take years, but I think it is possible.

First, we have to get further behind the only initiative that has managed to gain any sort of traction and that is Building Our Skills. The organisation has done well to gain the number of supporters it has so far, with sites and companies, including this one, throwing their support behind the cause. But we need to go further. More companies need to join and dedicate resources and information to help build a bridge between the sector and the public. It could be done via giving talks at schools and colleges, new web pages on company sites designed to promote the benefits of working in the sector, and displaying the Building Our Skills branding in more obvious places. The more the sector can get behind BoS the better.

Second is that one thing we don’t always like to talk about: money. We all earn it and we all spend it, so it no longer needs to remain a taboo subject. And, the reality is that skilled installers, sales reps and many other positions pay very well once you have put the initial effort in and got some years under your belt. I know some fitters who come away with very good money each week. Certainly, more than some of my own peers who went to University and are now saddled with debt. Money, especially now during the cost of living crisis and inflation battle, can be such a good USP for our sector if we frame it right.

Third is the education system. Unfortunately, much of the education system is not geared towards giving kids a balanced outlook for their own prospects. It is still very much set up towards sending as many kids as possible to University, with manual trades and other options overlooked. We have spent decades telling kids that the only way to make it in life is via a degree, and to ignore manual jobs. Now we wonder why we are short of so many skilled workers in so many areas. We have to level up the education system at the secondary school level and demonstrate to children in a fairer and more open-minded way that there is much more to success in life than the University route, and good, profitable careers can be made in other parts of life.

All of the above is going to take time. Years in fact. And I do worry that we have left it too late to make any sort of tangible difference to the trend we are now stuck in. But, we can either sit and complain like we tend to, or we can try and at least do something else about it.

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