26 May 2024, 15:43
By Furniture News Feb 05, 2024

Why apprenticeships matter to the furniture industry

It’s not too late to close the growing industry skills gap, says Natalie Cole, who was appointed to co-ordinate the newly launched Apprentice and Skills Plus Service this autumn – a free resource which aims to help companies recruit and retain new talent, upskill existing employees, and act as a central resource for information, advice and guidance on apprenticeships. Furniture News asked Natalie to explain her role in more detail … 

What were you doing before this appointment?

Before taking up this role I was working in education as a lecturer on the BA (hons) Product and Furniture Design degree course at Birmingham City University. It involved teaching students to think creatively and to consider user centred design, social context and commercial understanding. Key to this was encouraging students to explore materials, techniques and processes in relation to scales of manufacture, from one-off bespoke design to design for standardised mass production.

What does being the Skills Plus co-ordinator comprise?

My role involves managing the Apprentice & Skills Plus Service, which supports employers in the furniture sector to train, support and retain the next generation of talent. It’s co-funded by The Furniture Makers’ Company and Furniture, Interiors, Education, Skills and Training Alliance (FIESTA).

This primarily means demystifying apprenticeships for employers and supporting them to find the right training provider and appropriate apprentice standards for the skills gaps in their business, as well as signposting relevant funding and recruitment avenues.

Beyond supporting employers, I gather data and insights about the skills gap, training provision and recruitment challenges within the sector, and disseminate this to key stakeholders.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of the role?

Bringing new blood into the sector – whether that’s through an apprenticeship or an alternative training path. I’ve recently supported an upholstery business to recruit a person who has gone from working in property management to upholstery! 

What’s the single biggest challenge facing furniture industry recruitment today?

I believe a lack of awareness among school leavers about the furniture manufacturing sector is the main hurdle we need to overcome. This is not in any way the students’ fault, but rather a symptom of the gradual decline over the past 30-40 years in the teaching of workshop-based skills in schools.

Thirty-plus years ago, when I started at my local secondary school, there was both a wood workshop and a metal workshop and I had lessons in both, with staff who had specialist subject knowledge and skills. This is now incredibly rare in comprehensive schools. There is a myriad of reasons for this, but without the opportunity to enjoy and learn from making things in workshops, a huge number of children are missing out on the chance of discovering something they excel at. 

Can you suggest any steps that might help remedy that situation?

That is an enormous challenge – our discipline requires space, expensive equipment, teaching expertise and materials, and that’s before considering the health and safety concerns schools have. 

However, something that could make a huge difference is schools placing equal emphasis on apprenticeships as A Levels and university, as a viable career pathway. T Levels may go some way to addressing this, but apprenticeships need shouting about. They are an amazing way to get trained (with no fees) while earning money. There is a guaranteed job at the end of it, and great career prospects for working your way up through a business. Many of the operations managers, directors and technical directors I’ve spoken to over the past few months started their careers as apprentices. 

The apprenticeship levy has attracted a good deal of criticism since its introduction. What is your response to it?

It has detractors and some supporters, but if you are a business that pays into the levy, I’d say make the most of it and get your money back by taking on an apprentice, or even multiple apprentices. The apprenticeship levy can also be used to upskill existing members of staff, so employers should also consider this option if they don’t want to bring in new apprentices. And if there is no requirement in your organisation for apprentices, then consider transferring part of your annual levy fund to a business in your supply chain. 

What are you doing to bring stakeholders together and communicate the issue?

The issues of an ageing workforce and a looming skills gap within the furniture industry are well documented. Fortunately, I have the full support of The Furniture Makers Company, as well as FIESTA, which includes the directors of the main furniture trade associations (AMUSF, BFM, NBF, CIUK and KBSA), as well as representatives from colleges and independent furniture training providers, WorldSkills UK, and the specialist awarding and end-point assessment organisation Achieve + Partners, providing a wealth of experience focused on raising awareness and tackling this important issue.  

Do you fear that the delivery of any significant change or initiatives may come too late to address the looming skills crisis in our industry?

The Chinese proverb, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time is now,’ seems apt. I don’t believe it is too late, but it is urgent. There is clear recognition in the sector that this needs to be addressed, and a definite willingness among many to make this happen. 

Appealing to young people is going to be critical. Compared to other creative industries – particularly digital ones such as games design and interface design – the perception of the industry is maybe a little old-fashioned. This, of course, is not true – the sector has a huge amount to offer, and perhaps we need to shout about this more.

How can interested parties find out more?

Visit the FIESTA Learning website and go to the Apprentice & Skills Plus page, receive news about the service by signing up to a free newsletter, or email me to arrange a conversation, at [email protected].

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