BiKBBI Report: Skilled Trades Crunch a Trans-Atlantic Issue

Published: February 13, 2023

Last week, Mark Conacher (above), director of Liberty Fitting Service, traveled from Vancouver to attend the British Institute of Kitchen Bedroom and Bathroom Installation (BiKBBI) annual conference in London. He kindly reports to KBB his takeaway on the meeting.

At the 2023 BiKBBI conference, the hottest topic on the agenda was the ever-present skills gap crisis and the work being carried out to stoke the interest of young people and encourage them into trade apprenticeships.

Deputy editor of The Times Enterprise Network at The Times & The Sunday Times, Hannah Prevett, was host to an impressive line-up of keynote speakers, none more so than BiKBBI CEO Damian Walters who, while giving credit for the work already done, gave a stark warning to the industry that they “must take immediate practical steps to address not just the current shortage of existing fitters, but also the chronic lack of new installers coming through apprenticeship schemes.”

Damian added, “As we sit at this critical juncture, I call upon this industry to wake up, smell the coffee and take immediate action, without further delay.”

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Through a survey carried out by the BiKBBI in December of last year of current kitchen and bathroom installers in the UK, 60% of kitchen and bath installers said they would consider changing to another sector.

With several senior stakeholders and leaders in the UK kitchen and bath industry in attendance, this statistic had to be a wakeup call to each and every single person in the room.

Other speakers, including Member of Parliament and honorary patron Stephen Metcalfe MP, provided vital statistics about the state of the UK economy and the construction industry during and since the pandemic, leaving me with an overall feeling that whilst there is an obvious downturn in the economy at the moment, it may not be quite as bad as has been predicted and could have an even faster than expected recovery when compared to previous volatile economic times.

Just before lunch the delegates in attendance were split in half for two break-out sessions to discuss the shaping of the future workforce and sustainability within kitchen and bath installation, both currently huge topics not just here in the UK but around the world.

The afternoon saw an extremely lively panel discussion on whether regulation was something that the kitchen and bath industry needs more of, with the audience contributing a lot of insightful feedback and personal experiences.

Having personally been in the kitchen and bath industry for over 30 years, with 20 of those years physically installing kitchens and bathrooms, it’s sad to see the industry being faced with the challenges of an aging workforce that just hasn’t been replaced over the years for various reasons. This includes vocational jobs being seen as a slightly negative career path to take and instead, pursuing a university degree being the only real path worth considering.

Surely the shortage of tradespeople can’t come as a shock. I remember my journeyman discussing what was going to happen in the years ahead to the construction industry due to the lack of youth entering the trades, when I myself was an apprentice joiner back in the 80s.

So is it all doom and gloom? I really don’t think so.

With people like NKBA CEO Bill Darcy and BiKBBI CEO Damian Walters, we have two industry titans beating the drum loudly from both sides of the Atlantic. That drumbeat is a rallying call to everyone in the kitchen and bath industry to wake up and step up. Shortages in skilled trades affect everyone – from manufacturers and retailers to installation companies and designers.

I do however get the feeling that businesses are slowly starting to sit up and take notice but only time will tell if it’s just talk or if they will in fact walk the walk.

Overall, I found this year’s conference a fascinating opportunity to discuss and debate the most challenging problems within the industry – a conversation that must continue.

—By Mark Conacher, director of Liberty Fitting Service

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