The Furniture Makers’ Company – the City of London livery company and dedicated industry charity – has long played a leading role in developing the sector’s workforce, paying particular attention to engaging school leavers and graduates through shows, awards, seminars, scholarships and mentor programmes. Here, Alex Crofts and Chris Hyde, who co-chair the organisation’s education and training committee – together with education and training manager Rebecca Bertram-Smith – tell Furniture News about the challenges and training opportunities in their sights … 

What’s the biggest recruitment challenge facing the UK furniture industry?

Alex: As an industry we have struggled to take a more centralised approach to tackle industry-wide recruitment issues. Some companies, such as DFS and Silentnight, are very good at tackling their recruitment, and have strong apprenticeship programmes. However, we have received feedback from smaller firms that recruitment can be challenging for them with regards to how they best source talent in the most efficient and beneficial way. 

As an industry, we have many proactive trade bodies, such as Commercial Interiors UK, the British Furniture Manufacturers (BFM) and the National Bed Federation (NBF), that have worked to bring a more centralised system with regards to the recruitment of talent. A successful example of this is the creation of FIESTA (Furniture, Interiors, Education, Skills & Training Alliance), which has successfully launched and continues to actively promote Level 2 & 3 apprenticeship programmes in furniture. 

We recognise that we need to expand on this into wider general recruitment in areas such as graduate recruitment, T-Levels, mature entry recruitment and general recruitment.

Is there any anecdotal or hard evidence you can share regarding these challenges? 

Alex: Like most industries, we do have challenges regarding workers for specific skills – an example of this is in attracting sewing specialists for the upholstery industry. This field within the industry is made up of an aging workforce, and we need to attract talent into this area. One company has even acted by setting up a wider educational programme to tackle this issue.

Chris: Companies need young people who can problem-solve, make things and have attributes such as being enterprising, professional, confident, resilient and aware. These soft skills should also be considered when looking at developing teams.

Can you share any good examples of innovative solutions in our industry? 

Alex: Retention issues are always ongoing, and like most companies, those in our industry are competing with all sectors to attract and retain talent. 

Feedback from within the industry has highlighted that we are a nice sector to work in. Decent wages, positive working environment, wider company employee support (when required) and the opportunity for employee development (be it skills training/career progression) within the working establishment all go a long way to retaining talent.

What training initiatives is The Furniture Makers’ Company involved in? 

Rebecca: Since emerging from the pandemic, we have been reviewing our education and training offer and have been creating a long-term strategy to support entry into the industry and talent retention. This includes developing our current core activities such as the School Design Prize, the Young Furniture Makers Awards, the Young Furniture Makers exhibition, and our Young Professional Industry Experience. 

We’ll be creating additional opportunities which we will start to roll out over the next few years, targeting all entry points into our industry, as well ensuring that our activities take place across the UK and are accessible to as many people as possible. 

How effective a stepping stone to industry is the Young Furniture Makers exhibition? 

Rebecca: The Young Furniture Makers exhibition – an annual event taking place at Furniture Makers’ Hall and the Dutch Church in London every October, which is open to all in our industry and those interested in joining it – is a fantastic opportunity to connect talented budding furnituremakers with the industry. 

We invite the most outstanding entries to the Young Furniture Makers Awards to exhibit their work at the exhibition, and announce the winners in the evening. The event brings together emerging talent with members of industry to create a perfect melting pot for emerging designer/makers – exhibitors and guests – to develop their networks and provide an opportunity for industry to scout talent. 

Many exhibitors have been offered jobs and mentoring experiences at the exhibition. All the exhibitors surveyed after the event indicated that they will be pursuing a career in the industry.

What’s on FIESTA’s agenda right now? 

Rebecca: FIESTA and The Furniture Makers’ Company are currently collaborating to introduce a new joint role to help support employers and education providers to get more people into exciting apprenticeship opportunities, and scope out the employer landscape ahead of the new Furniture Making T-Levels due to be introduced this year.

Does your scope touch on the retail sector, or purely manufacturing/design? 

Alex: Moving forward, we plan to touch on all sectors of the industry, both manufacturing and retail. 

Do you feel there’s a disconnect between the industry and training bodies?

Alex: I don’t believe there is. We work very closely when we can. For example, we have a strong relationship with several educational establishments/training providers and run an annual award programme for both school and higher-level students. Key partners at this level include (but are not limited to) Rycotewood, Chichester College, Burnley College, Didac, Wendy Shorter Interiors and many others. 

This is one area where we have strong roots in place from which to grow. Our new strategy will focus on creating opportunities for students and employers to connect – whether that is at a face-to-face event or through a virtual site. 

Read more about the furniture industry's recruitment and retention challenge in January's Furniture News.

Pictured: The Furniture Makers’ Company delivers opportunities to engage directly with the industry