The skills shortage has been cited time and time again, as the key challenge facing the UK window and door industry. And it’s not alone. The skills crisis is at the top of the political agenda, listed by businesses and economists as the single biggest threat to the UK’s long term economic growth.
The Government’s attempt to boost training is the Apprenticeships Levy, introduced in April 2017. This places a requirement on all private organisations with an annual wage bill of more than £3m to commit 0.5% of its pay bill to a centrally held government war chest.
This is then available to access by qualifying businesses to fund or part fund places, promoting the creation and uptake of apprenticeships. The problem is that its effect has been far from the one desired by government.
According to the latest figures apprenticeships fell by a further 28% between August 2017 and March 2018 to 261,200, This compares to 362,400 and 346,300 starts reported in the equivalent period in 2016/17 and 2015/16 respectively.
If the apprenticeships levy has failed to kick start recruitment on a national stage, it is nonetheless, being used by select companies within the window and door industry to bolster in-house skills sets.
This includes Emplas, which currently has nine apprentices within its ranks, on top of those who have already completed their training.
“Apprentices are absolutely key in supporting our plans for the future”, says Judith Chadwick, HR Manager, Emplas. “The challenges in recruitment are well documented nationally and also within our own industry.
“There aren’t hundreds of people to choose from with a ready-made skills set. Finding people who fit in with our culture, who have the right attitude and who are able and willing to learn, is much more important to us.
“It’s a much better route. We get to shape the teams that we recruit so that they grow and develop in line with business need but also buy-in to our values.”
Emplas’ nine apprentices, including three within its retail business T&K Home Improvements are employed in variety of roles including customer service, order processing, installation, operations, marketing, HR and commercial installations. Former apprentices have included also included IT.
“The factory isn’t necessarily where we face the greatest challenge”, continues Judith. “Our manufacturing processes are highly automated and that reduces our reliance on specialist skills. There are, however, some other positions where it’s very, very difficult to get the right people.
“Order processing for example requires an understanding of product, customer requirements as well as our own internal process. It’ a commercially critical role so finding the right people is key – and they aren’t out there.”
“Our apprentice scheme allows us to develop order processors who understand the product, what the customer needs from it and them, and how their role sits and is part of our service commitment to our customers.”
Emplas apprenticeships are delivered through a mix of on the job and 20% ‘off the job’ training as required by legislation, including college release, assessments and coursework, for a minimum 12-months or longer, depending on the role and training provider.
“You have some apprentices who will perform way beyond expectation and take on far greater responsibilities than you would expect them to. We give them the opportunity to make as much of the role as they can, with the incentive that a job is there at the end for them”, says Judith.
“Realistically, however, if I was advising anyone about to go down the apprentice route, you need to work on the principle that you’re only really going to get around 50% of the output from someone in training compared to someone who’s fully qualified. It’s about giving them the space to really understand their training and the role.
“It’s also more critical in some roles than others. If for example you’re training someone as an installer, you can’t send them out to site and expect them to deliver the same outputs as a fully qualified fitter, so you need to adjust your expectations accordingly while people are in training.”
According to government figures, employers who have an established apprenticeship programme report that productivity in their workplace improved by 76%. Meanwhile, 75% said that apprenticeships improved the quality of their product or service, alongside other advantages including improved morale and retention.
“We have a 100% retention rate amongst our successful apprentices”, continues Judith, “that’s higher than in our workforce in general. People appreciate that you’re investing in them and in their development, they know that there is a job for them at the end of their training and that inspires a slightly higher degree of loyalty.”
To be able to offer an apprenticeship there must be a genuine job available with a contract of employment long enough for an apprentice to complete their apprenticeship. Employers must also cover wages and the role must help them gain the knowledge, skills and behaviours they need to achieve the apprenticeship with support from the employer.
Employers can select a training provider from the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers and agree a total price for the cost of training and assessment.
“Whatever is being said about current government policy, the take away point has to be that if your wage bill is less than £3m, you don’t need to pay it. At the same time 90% of training costs are paid for by the Government, which leaves only a 10% contribution to training to pay up to an agreed maximum training cost”, says Judith.
She continues: “If you’re an installation business and are prepared to invest a little time and resource into their development, apprenticeships are a great way of building a team, which will move your business forward into the future.
“We’re doing that through T&K our own retail business and if any of our customers are considering launching their own schemes, we’d be more than happy share our experience with them and something we’d certainly encourage everyone to do.”
CASE STUDY: Stanley Richardson, Sales and Marketing Apprentice
Having joined Emplas’ award winning marketing team in July 2017, Stanley Richardson, 19, is just weeks away from the completion of his apprenticeship in Sales and Marketing. This will give him and NVQ Level 3 and Technical Certificate.
“I’d completed college and was working in McDonalds and not really sure of what I wanted to do. My friend Tom had completed the Emplas apprenticeship and recommended it to me and me to Emplas.
“When I came to an interview I didn’t really quite know what to expect but it’s been a great experience. The learning curve at times has been steep. Emplas offers more than 6,000 different products and it was almost as if it was a different language but if you’re prepared to put the work in, you get some great exposure and work experience.”
For Stanley, this included the organisation of Emplas’ 40th Anniversary celebration in the summer, business administration, customer relationship management and field sales, assuming responsibility for his own accounts this autumn.
“There’s some stuff that I’ve done that I wouldn’t ever have imagined doing and now I’ve been given responsibility for my own key accounts and getting out there on the road and seeing them”, he says.
Stanley’s course, in common with other Emplas apprenticeships has included a combination of on the job training, observation and course work. “You’re learning in lots of different ways. That’s doing the job and then time in training plus assessment to see that you have the skills that you need to do the job.
“When I complete it will give me an A’ level equivalent but also a guaranteed role at the end of my training”, says Stanley.
“The other important thing for me is that Emplas is a growing business and that creates future opportunities within it if you’re hungry and want to succeed.”