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Can diversity solve the skills crisis in kitchen and bathroom installation?

A diverse workforce isn’t about being worthy, it’s about attracting the widest possible range of people to a sector that desperately needs new blood.

If you imagine the ‘average’ kitchen or bathroom installer in the UK, what would they look like? If you’re picturing someone about 50, male and white then you’d be correct and this, believe it or not, is a massive problem.

It’s a well-established truth that there is a significant shortage of experienced, qualified kitchen and bathroom installers in the UK. During the post-lockdown boom in home improvements this became more acute than ever and the industry, always troubled by the difficulties in finding good trades, suddenly had its eyes opened to the scale of the issue.

But if you think it’s bad now, what happens when all those 50-year-olds think about retiring and they’re not being replaced by young fitters coming into the trade at the other end? Add to that the results of a recent survey by the British Institute of KBB Installation (BiKBBI) that found three-fifths of kitchen, bedroom and bathroom installers are thinking of switching their skills to a different industry such as renewable energy – with almost 65% citing financial gain or better opportunities as the main driver.

“You should ask yourself what the industry might look like with over half of our already short and depleting workforce simply walking out of our industry in search of a better life,” said BiKBBI CEO Damian Walters at the organisation’s 2023 conference.

“The only conclusion you could possibly come to is that this would lead to a catastrophe beyond that of the swollen lead times that caused chaos in 2021 and 2022. Perhaps 20- or 30-week lead times would become the new norm? What exactly would that do to your business?

“This data would trouble me in normal circumstances, but when you add in the fact that there is already a huge disparity between the demand from retailers and consumers versus the availability of skilled, competent and professional KBB installers, this could be catastrophic for our sector.”

A stark warning that clear affirmative action must be taken to bring new blood into the trade – and that means increasing the demand for widely recognised apprenticeships and pushing the career opportunities to a younger audience.

But for that to really work the sector needs to fish from the biggest possible pond, and that means looking beyond age – it needs the workforce to be much more diverse in terms of ethnicity, culture and gender too. Without that, it is severely limiting its own opportunity to grow.

In 2022, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that over the past decade the percentage of women taking up skilled trades and holding senior management positions within construction firms barely changed.

Of all skilled trades professionals working in the UK construction sector – such as joiners, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters – just 1% were women. And that represents just a 0.7 per cent increase during the past decade.

In response to this, the BiKBBI recently hired Dr Stuart Lawrence in the newly created role of diversity ambassador. He has been a tireless campaigner for social justice and equality following the tragic murder of his older brother, Stephen, in 1993 and now he will promote equal opportunities in this sector with a primary focus on encouraging the industry to embrace diversity in all its forms, including ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic background.

Dr Stuart Lawrence

Crucially, this is not an exercise in worthiness, it is about giving the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom installation sector the widest possible choice of candidates.

“It is crucial for all industries to recognise the importance of diversity, not only as a matter of social inclusivity, but also as a driver for innovation and success,” he says. “It would be good to hear from those at the top of the food chain about what they are going to do. We are working from the bottom up, but we need top-down action too. If we can both work together, we’ll be able to achieve something amazing.

“We all need to rethink things, and make sure we’re not stereotyping and assuming roles for people. We need to make sure we give everyone their chance to shine and contribute to life and I think this industry could do that for people.”

The supply side of the sector is beginning to make inroads in this area too, although it is also early days, Mike Gahir is managing director of Lakes Showering Spaces, which sponsors the Sport 4 Life initiative that helps to educate and empower young people into education and employment via sport. He also talks about diversity of thought as being a positive outcome of having a more inclusive and varied workforce.

“We have seen in many industries and situations that by challenging the ‘normal’ way of thinking, we can each grow as individuals,” he says.

“Embracing diversity allows for progression of people and in turn, organi­sations that contribute to skills and know­ledge transfer, enabling successive generations to enjoy a richer life and keep mankind on a journey of growth.  Statistically, organi­sations that embrace diversity are on average, 1.32 times more productive than those who don’t.”

Similarly, through its ‘Give’ program, Grohe is a key sponsor of the Female HIP (heating, installation and plumbing) Skills Awards, which was set up to encourage women and girls to join these professions.

Chris Dodds, program leader at parent company Lixil EMENA explains: “The current gender imbalance not only represents inequity, but also poses a threat to the growth and success of the industry, particularly given the ongoing shortages of skilled labourers and installers in the UK. It is crucial we prioritise making the industry more inclusive for all women, tapping into their full potential, and fostering a more diverse workforce.

“The most practical way to level up diverse participation in the trade industry is by further providing more targeted opportunities, such as introductory events, training programmes, work experience and apprenticeships. We need to showcase what the industry can offer.”

Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms will take place at NEC Birmingham, June 25th – 27th, 2024 www.installershow.com

To find out more about Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms, contact David Ventris-Field on: dventris-field@lyricalcomms.com

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