As the Summer Budget showed, it’s clear that the Government sees apprenticeships as pivotal to the growth of the UK economy, committing to producing three million apprenticeships by 2020. The joinery industry is crying out for more apprentices and skilled people. Iain McIlwee, CEO of the British Woodworking Federation, shares his views on what needs to happen for the industry’s needs and Government’s vision to be fulfilled.

The subject of apprenticeships tends to incite passionate debate within our industry. Many of the industry’s most senior leaders within the British Woodworking Federation’s (BWF) member organisations started out as apprentices themselves. Training, skills and the recruitment of new talent into joinery manufacturing and woodworking is part of the daily discussions across many workshops and boardrooms.

Everyone can cite the odd negative case but by and large, there are some truly fantastic success stories that uphold the value of the apprentice system in joinery.

For example, take Ben James, the Apprentice of the Year at last year’s BWF Awards.

Ben has worked at Tompkins Joinery for over four years, starting there as a work experience student aged 16 before going on to complete his apprenticeship and achieve NVQ Level 3 and Diploma Level 3.

He has already completed a few high profile projects of his own, including the joinery for Dallas Burston Polo Club, the prestigious polo ground based in Southam, Warwickshire.

It is probably unsurprising that Ben has done so well at Tompkins, as he has been mentored by Tom McKillop, another outstanding member of staff at Tompkins who was the inspiration behind the BWF’s award-winning ‘Wow I Made That!’ campaign to attract more young people into the joinery industry. Ben also said he took inspiration from his grandfather, a handyman who was always creating things out of wood.

Ben is a genuine high achiever. Although he didn’t enjoy school, he became deputy head boy, and he also now coaches an under-14s football team as well as helping to run and raise funds for the Gary Barton Memorial Trust, a cancer charity set up in memory of his uncle.

As Andy Tompkins, owner of Daventry-based Tompkins Joinery, said to us: “If something needs doing, Ben is there. He gets in early to start work and stays until the job is done. Attitude is everything, and Ben’s approach to his work is simply excellent.”

We certainly could see that Ben had produced some very high quality work for someone at apprentice level, and he was regularly stepping up to take full responsibility for projects.

We are looking now for this year’s Apprentice of the Year, and expect to see other young people getting the accolades they deserve. They are the jewel in the crown for British joinery manufacturing and woodworking. 

But we need many, many more. Recent estimates show that more than 4200 new entrants will be needed in the wood trades every year for the next four years, just to stand still. That’s a rise from 244,700 in 2014 to more than 260,800 in 2018.

The UK wood products manufacturing sector is a vital part of the construction industry, adding £3.8b to the UK economy every year. Of the 2.9 million people working in construction, 7% are carpenters and joiners – the third largest sector of employment in construction.

The woodworking and joinery sector also maintains the highest ratio of apprentices in the construction industry, with the latest stats from Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) showing joinery accounts for 32% of all construction apprenticeships in 2014 – that’s 8313 young people training and in work, thanks to the joinery industry’s employers. 

But in order to maintain its buoyancy, we need to see standards, availability and support for apprenticeships improve three-fold.

On the surface of it, this year’s Budget supported this aspiration. Emphasising apprenticeships as a big part of the future of the UK economy, the Government committed to producing three million apprenticeships by 2020.
However, behind the headlines, we remain concerned that the term ‘apprentice’ may become further distorted for targets to be hit.

There is also a new voucher scheme and administrative process for the funding of apprentices coming in soon, moving the burden from colleges and training providers to employers.

Details of the voucher system are yet to be announced. Further changes may also come out of the new apprentice levy also announced in the Budget, and it’s still unclear whether this will replace or work in conjunction with the CITB levy which so many firms in this sector pay at the moment.

At this year’s BWF Members’ Day, the chief executive of the CITB, Adrian Belton, spoke about the direction they are trying to take things in to address the joinery industry’s skills needs. We now look forward to finding out the results of the CITB’s triennial review and hope that evolution wins over revolution, as we believe the CITB really does offer a valuable proposition.

We understand changes to the funding stream, in line with Richard Review recommendations, are also on the way.

The Government has made it clear that it intends to co-fund apprenticeships, effectively bringing to an end fully-funded training provision, with employers expected to increase their contribution. We believe that full support should still be given to microbusinesses and SMEs’ training costs for all ages to encourage apprenticeships. Benefits to the economy far outweigh the cost to the Treasury.

So understandably, I’m worried that increased costs and funding cuts associated with the new bureaucracy will make it all the more harder for employers to bring a new apprentice in.

Our other key aim is to uphold quality, and to ensure that the differences between a trainee and apprentice are made abundantly clear.

The woodworking industry is extremely diverse. It has a number of occupations, some site-based, others in a workshop, and like every business has the day-to-day occupations like management, accounts, marketing and sales. The BWF’s member companies are joinery manufacturers, and mainly take on bench joinery and wood machining apprentices.

Apprentices are not failed school leavers or the poor cousin of graduates. We must get over that “not for my child” attitude, and understand that – just like Ben, Tom and the other bright apprentices we celebrate in our awards scheme – these are the entrepreneurial, motivated business leaders of the future.

There is a powerful connection between high-quality vocational training and employability. Apprenticeships provide that structured technical, practical and vocational learning. Qualifications achieved through apprenticeships can reach a degree level equivalent or beyond.

Only when we achieve the parity of esteem between academia and apprenticeships will we be consistently able to attract the brightest talent into our sector.

If we are to start building an understanding of the value of apprenticeships it needs to start further back, in secondary schools. Although parents are aware that practical skills are often key to getting a job, when it comes down to it, many aren’t informed of the options available to their children.

This is where the work and policies of the Department for Education need to join up more closely with the work and policies of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). 

Yes, the Government’s review of the GCSE system is critical, but so too is the need for better schools careers advice and improved co-ordination of business programmes to engage with schools, students and their parents. As it stands, the process is too fragmented. There is no formal, consistent or clear way to deliver.

These were points that the BWF raised with BIS when we recently met up with some of their senior representatives. During the meeting, the BIS team outlined encouraging plans to speed up the trailblazer process that will ensure we do not get fragmentation of apprenticeships that are too specific (more akin to trainee) and focus more on actual careers.
Government also displayed a genuine desire to engage with small businesses in helping to find mechanisms that work for them. However, at the time, many of our questions could not be answered, as the detail is simply not yet there.
But that means there’s still plenty of opportunity to help shape it.

We are now working with BWF member firms to identify volunteers to trial the proposed new apprentice voucher system. This involves meeting with one of BIS’s researchers to receive a demonstration of the prototype, where the feedback given by members will be used to ensure the service can be shaped as closely as possible to employers’ needs.

BIS is interested in speaking to companies who currently have apprentices, and is also particularly keen to meet with micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses who haven’t considered apprenticeships before. The researchers are based in Milton Keynes and Coventry, so can easily reach businesses located within or near London, the South-east in general and the Midlands.

The joinery industry has earned one of the best reputations for training across both the construction and manufacturing sectors. Year after year, supported by the CITB, we consistently rank first or second in construction for apprentice numbers and the claiming of grants for training.

So it is in our interests to participate in such initiatives. We are an industry that looks to the future.