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BiKBBI Annual Conference 2024: the Colossal Fight to Replace Ageing Construction Industry Workforce

by Peter Chesters

At last week’s BiKBBI Annual Conference the theme of the day was ostensibly Collaboration. Whilst there was a distinct collaborative feeling between the many KBB manufacturers and installers present, the de facto theme became the elephant that sits amongst the entire construction industry: The ageing and rapidly depleting workforce that is not even close to being replaced quickly enough.

 

BiKBBI Addressing the Ageing Construction Industry 

Panel topics, speeches and group discussions centred around the difficulties associated with attracting future workers into both KBB installation and the wider construction industry.

Unsurprisingly, no concrete solutions were formed in one day to solve an issue that has plagued construction for decades. However, as the collaborative theme of the day suggested, there was plenty of ideation, advice and teamwork to try and unearth any green shoots of hope amongst a very difficult looking future for the workforce.

BiKBBI CEO Damian Walters set the tone for the day by acknowledging how the demise of the Victoria Plum installation service in 2023 was a bitter blow for the micro-installation services who served them and hurt an already depleted workforce.

To try and create the workforce of tomorrow, BiKBBI have worked to create a fit for purpose apprenticeship scheme for the KBB installation industry. However, it has seen astonishingly little take up from the industry. A shockingly low amount of 37 apprentices were taken on through this scheme in England in 2023. The fact that this is a 15% increase from 2022 is less of a positive step forward and more of a sobering realisation that less than 100 new apprentices have joined the industry in two years.

It is no surprise to anybody with a knowledge of construction that the industry has a massive issue with ageing workforce and a skills gap. The population is increasingly ageing across the UK, but construction is feeling the effects of this more than most other industries. Joining this industry is still seen as a last resort for many, and there isn’t enough being done at the governmental, education or industry level to tackle this increasingly dire problem.

Several frightening statistics were delivered throughout the day that highlighted the true scale of this issue:

  • Connie Collett of Wickes quoted a statistic that 50% of the installer network across the construction industry are due to retire in the next five years.
  • Fergus Harradance, Deputy Director at the Department for Business & Trade, quoted a statistic from the Construction Products Association that 500,000 construction workers are due to retire in the next ten years – around ¼ of the entire current construction workforce.

Retaining a Survivable Workforce in the Construction Industry

The huge gap between the number of new workers joining the industry and those leaving it was referenced in Damian Walters opening speech:

Less than 100 new apprentices joining our industry is nothing short of a travesty […] it’s not good enough and there’s no point in us pretending otherwise, it’s not going to fix the problem.

According to Fergus Harradance, there is a 40% dropout rate on apprenticeships. So those who join the industry are, on average, leaving incredibly quickly too. The kbbreview Retailer Survey 2024 states that 66% of installers would consider leaving the industry for another one.

Clearly, the issue isn’t simply in recruiting new blood, it’s in retaining it too. As it stands, we are nowhere near solving an issue that reaching an ever-closer crisis point.

The Lack of Apprenticeship Roles Consistency in UK

So, why are we in this mess as an industry? Connie Collett also referenced that when Wickes most recently took on a cohort of apprentices, they had over 400 applicants for the scheme. Given that this is more than ten times the 37 apprentices that were taken on across the entire nation in 2023, it suggests that there is demand for more apprentices than roles that currently exist. More needs to be done by built environment businesses to create and join apprenticeship schemes.

Audience members and panel speakers throughout the day acknowledged negative perceptions around apprenticeships within the industry that stop them from becoming more widely implemented by employers.

It was discussed that with the ebb and flow of work for small businesses, it is very difficult to permanently employ any “correct” number of staff for your needs. When trade is booming, there is the need for more workers on specific jobs. However, when work dries up, it is incredibly difficult to pay a consistent wage with little or zero cash flow into your business.

Another undeniable perception issue comes from the fear of apprentices leaving the business that trained them and setting up their own rival firm in your same local area. Given that there are over 700,000 small businesses in UK construction, this is a very real threat that must be acknowledged and properly addressed. Many industries risk businesses losing apprentices after they are trained. Very few industries suffer with the same issue of such a high chance of you creating a future direct rival for your business when train an apprentice.

The huge amount of small businesses that exist in construction also makes it incredibly difficult for industry-wide collaboration and change to occur. How do you corral over half a million traders into a decision-making process? The great work that BiKBBI and other trade organisations do to pull together as much of the industry as possible to have these conversations at a higher level is vital to solve these needs.

So, how do we support in solving the ageing construction workforce?

If the supply of installers is set to considerably dry up in the next 10 years, then it would suggest that demand for work from those who survive will be high and potentially very lucrative. This financial bait could help change the “last resort” narrative for future workers choosing their career path.

We also can’t rely on businesses creating apprenticeship schemes out of goodwill either. Financial return on investment and long-term business gains must be put at the forefront of any scheme to get a business on board.

Large organisations like Wickes appear to have already heeded this need with their dedication to apprentice schemes. As Connie Collett from Wickes pointed out, apprenticeships can be wonderful for brand value and engendering long-term loyalty from young staff. An apprentice is likely to have no prior experience and therefore have picked up no habits from elsewhere. You can train your apprentices to be compliant with standards and exactly in line with your brand values, leading to a virtuous cycle of good workers keeping customers satisfied and passing on your brand values to the generation that follows.

Simon Taylor of Simon Taylor Furniture also highlighted the positives of paying above the minimum standard wage for apprentices. Simon believes that this has delivered a more loyal workforce that want to grow and progress their skills at a faster rate than he would have seen otherwise. Of course, not all businesses can afford to do this, but for those who can, it seems it is a must to present a more attractive workplace to a generation that currently is widely uninterested in joining it.

Furthermore, to combat the issue of creating a future rival for your business, Simon believed that this can be turned into a positive: if you maintain good relations, then there can be a mutually beneficial passing of work to one another when your own order book is full. Finders fees or equivalent schemes can be decided between the two businesses to ensure it is worthwhile for your business to pass along that work to an ally.

As Simon also pointed out, AI isn’t going to be taking installers jobs anytime soon. These skills are still going to be needed for a long time, and if the current workforce is only a few years from retirement, we don’t have long at all to train up a new series of workers so that they can have developed skills and experience by the time they need to step into more senior roles to fill the gaps.

Education, standards, compliance and sustainability are the standards that BiKBBI upholds as their mantra. By the evidence of the passion, collaboration and forward thinking at their annual conference, those standards are upheld by themselves and their members very well. But as the sobering numbers quoted at last week’s annual conference proved, it is going to take more than just this room of people to enact a desperate change across the entire industry.

To read more on the effects of the ageing population on the UK Built Environment, see Recreative Construction, our series written by Industry Commentator Brian Green, with a foreword by Noble Francis, Economics Director at the Construction Products Association.

Our colleague Abdul Tantouch, Head of Content at AMA Research, also spoke at the BiKBBI Annual Conference 2024. Read our roundup of Abdul’s expectations for the major factors that will define KBB Industry performance in 2024.

About the author

Peter Chesters

Peter Chesters

Head of Demand Generation at Barbour ABI

Peter has worked for Barbour ABI since March 2019. Beginning in the Barbour Product Search editorial team, he then moved into the Barbour ABI Marketing team in late 2019, mainly focusing on writing and content creation. In 2021 Peter began to head up the Barbour Product Search editorial team.

As Head of Demand Generation, Peter now works across Barbour ABI, Barbour Product Search and AMA Research, focusing on new business marketing strategy and content creation across the Barbour ABI Group.

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