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Death of DIY: How can we plug the skills gap? Comment

Death of DIY: How can we plug the skills gap?
Kevin Byrne, Founder & Chairman, Checkatrade.com

With a manual labour skills shortage now a real concern in the UK, Kevin Byrne, the founder and CEO of Checkatrade.com gave us his views on the problems in the sector and what can be done about it. 


Britain is facing a well-documented skills shortage, with numbers in many manual trades well below required levels. A survey of nearly 1,500 of Checkatrade.com’s nationwide trade members found that:

- Over half of those surveyed are over 45
- A further 25% are aged between 35 and 44
Just 14% are aged 25-34, with 18-24 year olds accounting for a miniscule 1%

What’s more, five in ten members have worked in their particular trade for over eight years, with just 8% stating four years or less, indicating a worrying lack of youngsters beginning careers in manual work.

Indeed, a survey conducted by the Federation of Master Builders revealed that two thirds of its members have had to turn down new business because they do not have enough skilled workers, while almost half have been forced to outsource work, sometimes overseas.

Similarly, accountancy firm KPMG estimated in a recent report that there are 33,000 too few painters and decorators in the South East alone.

Almost two thirds of Checkatrade.com members surveyed feel that not enough is being done to steer young people into manual trades.

Death of DIY

What is even more worrying is the apparent trend of people these days not versing themselves in the arts of DIY. This is evidenced not just by the closure of smaller, independent DIY shops once found on the high streets, but also the ongoing woes of large chains such as B&Q and Homebase. Both have ditched a significant number of outlets in the last couple of years.

What these trends mean

Consumers’ collective uselessness at DIY, combined with a lack of younger people choosing manual careers, means that the demand for tradespeople far outstrips the supply.

If these trends continue, existing tradespeople will find themselves busier and busier. Good for them perhaps, but consequently, homeowners may experience higher prices and difficulties scheduling appointments within a reasonable timeframe. This could cause problems if something needs fixing quickly (e.g. a broken boiler).

In addition, the skills shortage could impact on George Osborne’s plans to build five million new homes in the next five years, worsening the housing crisis and pushing up property prices. Great news for existing homeowners perhaps, but what about the millions of younger people trying to get on the ladder?

Pros and cons of manual trades

One of the misguided notions young people have about manual trades is that they are poorly paid. True, younger people entering manual trades as an apprentice won’t earn top dollar straight away. However, after passing the appropriate trade-specific qualifications (where applicable) and gaining skills and experience, many start their own businesses and some end up on six figure salaries.  

Many younger people also favour careers in professional services, such as law and financial services, not just because of the high salaries but also for the respectability and influence that accompanies these roles.

This is fine, but occasionally parents pressure their children to ‘make something of themselves’ and enter professional services, despite what their children might think or want to do. In these cases there can almost be a social stigma associated with entering manual trades. Indeed two thirds of Checkatrade.com members surveyed do not think manual trades are valued equally compared to professional services. This perception needs to change.

Let’s not forget that professional services have their drawbacks. They can be stressful, hours-intensive, sometimes poorly paid and require people to sit behind a desk all day working for somebody else. Interestingly, a small percentage of survey respondents previously worked in professional services before leaving and entering manual trades for precisely these reasons. The vast majority who did so, 95%, stated that switching to manual trades was worth it.

Young people are also increasingly drawn to the exciting technology industry where huge sums of money are being made and this naturally detracts from manual trades. Indeed, those savvy enough to innovate and then sell their idea to companies such as Facebook or Google can earn themselves millions, sometimes even billions of pounds, and usually from the comfort of a desk without getting their hands dirty.

Yes manual trades have their challenges like any other job. They can be demanding physically and mentally, stressful and require long hours and extensive travelling, but there are huge benefits too. The Checkatrade.com members’ survey found that:

- A whopping 82% of those surveyed said they enjoyed running their own businesses and being their own boss
- A further 39% enjoy the creativity that comes with working in manual trades
- One in five are earning more money than they could in professional services
- A third said they have the perfect work / life balance

Running a business can be immensely satisfying. Business owners control their own destiny, find their own work / life balance, choose the people they want to work with, follow their passion, feel pride in building something that is theirs and, most importantly, challenge themselves.

What’s more, it isn’t usually necessary to go to university to enter manual trades. Workers learn their skills on the job and gain trade specific qualifications (often studied and taken through apprenticeships, paid for by their employers). This means young people can save themselves thousands of pounds in tuition fees and student loans.

It can take less time to train too. Of our members who formerly worked in professional services before switching to manual trades, nearly 60% spent less than two years learning their new craft before earning the skills they need.

Steering young people into manual trades

As pointed out by our members, not enough is being done to steer young people into manual trades and this needs to change. Of those Checkatrade.com members surveyed, 56% stated that more apprenticeships would help increase the number of young people entering manual trades and 53% said that additional Government funding was the answer.

These are connected at least in part as the Government does provide funds to companies that take on apprentices, generally to cover the costs of training, as well as studying for and taking trade-specific qualifications.

George Osborne has recognised this and is introducing a new apprenticeship levy in April 2017. Businesses with payroll bills above 3m will contribute 0.5 per cent to the levy but will receive an allowance in return of £15,000. The more apprentices they employ, the more government-funded training will be available.

An independent body called the Institute of Apprentices will, says the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, monitor the levy and advise on the level of funding each apprentice will get, set standards and ‘ensure quality’.

While the apprenticeship levy could be viewed as set with the best of intentions, it has received mixed reactions in the business community. The new director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, called it “a good spending review for longer-term investment in the economy” but added that the size and scope of the apprenticeship levy had been “a sting in the tail”.

Ultimately, it is the trades that take on apprentices and apply for Government funding. They can make these apprenticeships more attractive to young recruits by offering incentives to train and better salary packages where appropriate. With Osborne’s changes coming through, hopefully this will spur more trades on to do this.

However, what is needed is to show young people that manual trades are positive, skilled roles with huge potential as career choices that can earn high salaries. That working in manual trades is just as important as other career sectors, such as financial services, as well as highlighting the enormous range of accompanying benefits.   

The big question is how we do this? Perhaps a Government-sponsored PR campaign, utilising print and online media, TV, radio and social media that actively encourages trades to participate and visit schools to lecture students would be a start. 

Ultimately, more needs to be done to steer younger people into manual trades and quickly, otherwise in the future these types of career may become a lost art.

By Kevin Byrne, Founder & Chairman, Checkatrade.com

Image courtesy of Checkatrade.com

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