Within the industry today, there appears to be a huge lack of younger people wanting to become manufacturers and upholsterers, says Lisa Williamson. But in a country where upholstery and manufacture has such a legacy, what has changed?

It comes down to two main points – education and apprenticeships (or a lack thereof). The funding is just not there for schools to ensure that subjects such as woodwork and design are a fundamental part of education. In today’s school timetables, hands-on subjects might only be studied once a week, for one term of the year. 

The climate is such that schools are potentially thinking of their own league tables, needing top results in English, maths and science over the opportunity for breeding creativity. And, with a lack of funding from Government, the return on investment on a classroom full of computers is much higher than a room full of workbenches.

In the UK education system, we see a huge gap between academia and creativity. If we look, for example, at the design of a household sofa, it combines art and academia within the process of its creation, so we need to be questioning an education system that views these aspects separately. 

With the introduction of the English baccalaureate, the number of schools even offering design and technology is worryingly low. I believe it is imperative to include it in the curriculum for the EBacc, for while it remains an option rather than a necessity, a huge number of schools are choosing not to offer it at all.

The introduction of the new apprenticeship standards at Levels 2 and 3 may also help to fill these skills gaps.  They are designed by employers to cover the skills required by industry to ensure an apprentice can demonstrate mastery of a particular occupation by the end of the apprenticeship.

The Level 2 Furniture Manufacturing standard is currently available and covers areas from general furniture manufacture to foam conversion and CNC specialism, and while there are over 300 apprentices on the programme we don’t believe this enough to fill the skills gaps reported by industry. 

The Level 3 apprenticeship is currently in development and should be available in early 2019, and will cover areas such as advanced upholstery and fitted furniture design.

Many businesses seem to view the new Apprenticeship Levy as another tax, and with apprenticeship processes changing every three years, it can seem costly in regard to the time and training required to keep up with ever-changing rules. However, it is the most effective way to keep our industry alive. 

Once the levy is paid, companies will receive funding for training and assessment, and for those companies that do not have to pay the levy, there is Government funding available for apprenticeships. UK businesses need to keep skills alive and help the industry thrive by taking advantage of this campaign, and recruit apprentices now.

Lisa Williamson is the education and training manager for the British Furniture Manufacturers (BFM), the trade association that has represented the interests of the British furniture industry for more than 65 years and offers members a range of benefits including access to expertise on subjects including export, EU Timber Regulations, health and safety, commodity pricing and the environment.