It’s 2017 and we still have a youth crisis in the window and door industry in this country. In fact the youth crisis is still one of the most pressing problems the whole of construction in this country. Nearly three years after David Cameron’s promised apprenticeship scheme was announced, we are nowhere near to getting those three million apprenticeship places set up and funded. Now with Brexit, you can be assured that it’s going to be kicked into the long grass while the Government tries to negotiate a deal of sorts with the rest of the EU.
Still, the youth crisis facing the window and door industry is an immediate one and is only going to get worse. So last week, in bed with my mind ticking over and going through comments from one of our fitters at work, I hashed up a plan in my head a whole new scheme from start to finish, which in an ideal world would help funnel talented youth towards a career in the window industry, as well as construction as a whole.
Consider this my wishlist. A scheme that in a perfect world and plenty of time and resourced to dedicate it to, would help inject new blood into what is a very ageing industry.
Starts at school
I left school when I was 17, a year early, to go into the family run business we have now. Although my grades were good enough to get me into University, it never interested me. I wanted to go into work and earn money. It was the best decision I made, and I have seen mates my age, who did go to Uni, now struggle to get on the housing ladder, get a job in the profession they studied in. Proof that Uni isn’t for everyone.
I distinctly remember a lack of any sort of courses at my Sixth Form which focused on any sort of trade. My school, as many others seemed at the time, became obsessed with funnelling as many kids as possible into University. We were bombarded with messaging from teachers, assemblies, guest speakers and others that it was the only way to go. No other way to success in life was presented to us. We later found out that for every kid that went to Uni from school, that school got extra funding. All about the cash!
At no other juncture were we shown that there were other ways to progress in life other than further education. When I decided to leave early, my teachers gave up on me. They paid no attention to me in class. They didn’t try all that hard to make me stay either. As soon as they knew I was going into work, they totally left me alone. No attempts were made to show me a different path other than University either. It only confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing. Something I now know to be true.
My example is where the whole of the education system is letting the kids, the country and the economy down. Lets be frank, not everyone going to school right now is academically gifted enough for University. We all knew other kids on our class that weren’t going to cut it. But, there are plenty of kids in school that although not gifted in the mathematical sense, could well be gifted in other areas. More manual areas, such as trades like joinery, electrical work, plastering, building, and yes, window and door installation. It is these school leavers that need to be shown that they don’t need to go to Uni to be able to make a success of themselves. They need to be shown in a very positive way that becoming a successful joiner, builder, fenestration installer or any other trade could make them as successful, or even more so, than their peers who decide to go the Uni route.
Part one of my plan would be for local window and door installers, fabricators and syscos to build relationships with schools in their local areas and create positions at their companies for those kids who would be interested in pursuing a manual career. I would get the Government involved, to encourage both schools and window companies to take part in the scheme. I would also introduce funding for both parties. Firstly, to make it more attractive to business, seen as though they’re the ones taking the time and money to train that young person. And also for the schools, as they would lose funding otherwise if that kid decided not to go to Uni.
I would say that as part of a five day week, that young person would spend three days at the company, and two days at school. Those three days could be spent on site with an installations team, or on the shop floor at a fabricator, learning about the product, installation methods, where the product comes from, the supply chain etc. The other two days would be spent at school, learning the finer details of their profession, the more academic skills that would be required.
For me, schools and indeed businesses in this new relationship should be identifying the types of kids likely to go down a trades route from an early age. I would start at perhaps 13 or 14 years old. At 16, kids are already looking at another two years of A-Levels, and even considering which University might be good for them, even though it is still years away and they may not even end up there. It would be far better to encourage those with a more practical mindset to look at all their options with balance, and be shown that a career in a trade can still make them very successful.
I would make the course three years. No fast-tracking, no “quick routes” to where they need to be. Nothing is learned when it is rushed. I appreciate that we have a massive skills gap to plug in our industry, but we need to train our future generations right, else risk huge problems in our sector in the years to come. I would also start this course from the age of 16. I know that currently education is compulsory until aged 18, but you will always have a percentage of kids in education at that age because they have to be, not because they want to be. For me that is wrong and does them no favours during those extra years. 16 in my eyes is a balanced age in which to start introducing them into the real world, whilst honing their skills for a future manual career.
I would also pay them a little more each year. Nothing major in terms of the amounts, but it would gradually increase as each year passes. Not enough so as to spoil them and demotivate them, but enough to teach them that with hard work comes rewards. This in my eyes is a more positive approach.
The second part of my idea is just as important as the first, both for the business and the new member of the fenestration community. There is a risk that as the glazing business dedicated three years of hard work, time, money and skills into training their new young people, they could just up and leave as soon as they pass and leave that business immediately. I don’t see that as fair for the business. They spent the time training that person, but would get no benefit should that scenario play out.
It’s also perfectly feasible that the glazing company doing the training could see this as an opportunity for low-paid work, abusing the power they have and simply using their trainees to carry out their work for less than full wage. Not cool.
So, as part of my wishlist scheme, both business and trainee would sign to say that the trainee would work for that company for at least one full year, at full living wage or an agreed yearly salary. This would work for both parties, as the business gets to take advantage of the skills their newly trained young person has acquired. And the newly trained person gets the guarantee of a full time position at the end of their training, at good pay, as security, safety and reward for their dedication. I would also build in a clause that if a business was suddenly unable to either create a position for that new young person, or was unable to fill an existing role for that young person, funding would be available from the Government to create that new position.
After a year, the business and the young person would be free to part ways if they so wished. However, I would hope that after what would be four years with the glazing company, they would have built up enough of a good relationship that they would continue to work together. I am a big believer that if you train people and look after them well from the start, they are more likely to stay with you for the longer term.
The big question is how would all this be funded. A scheme like this wouldn’t come free. Indeed, money would have to be raised from somewhere. And considering it would be SME’s in the glazing industry and construction as a whole that would be most likely to partner with schools and colleges, it would seem unfair to tax them. But I would target the very largest companies with a small levy, the very same tax model David Cameron proposed. The idea was to place a nominal fee, something like a 0.5% tax on the very biggest business, to help fund his plan. I would do the same. As this is a pipe dream I can’t pull a figure out of the air, but I would imagine I would need a few billion to help make this work.
The crux of my idea is the creation of a strong, and official, partnership between companies and schools at a local level. For me, this is the only practical way we are going to be able to encourage school leavers that there is more than one way to make a success in life other than at University. This at the moment doesn’t exist, thanks to the massive neglect in the education system towards trades of all kinds. Unless this changes, the above and what I have just proposed would be a total waste of time. The Government needs to very quickly and very rapidly reevaluate how we prepare our school kids for the real world, and create a new balance between those that go to Uni and those that we all desperately need to help build the infrastructure for our country. And that very much includes the window and door industry.