Beating the skills gap

on 06 March, 2017

When many Builders Merchants’ News readers grew up, having a Saturday job – helping in a shop, cafe or builders’ merchant yard – was part of teenage life. In today’s society, ‘Saturday work’ has dropped by some 65%, according to the Confederation of Timber Industries’ Skills and Education report. That means fewer young people being exposed to potential careers in merchanting, and learning about materials like timber.

Only around 5% of young people now leave school for direct employment or vocational education. Contractors Laing O’Rourke have also highlighted the disconnect between the specific DEC (Design, Engineer & Construct) GCSEs and A-Levels, their lack of take-up by schools and their consequent lack of recognition by universities.

Naming and shaming the skills gap, the government’s Farmer Review recommended that construction and its supply chains should digitize to reduce reliance on human talent, manufacturing more housing in factories. Transmogrify these factors and statistics into likely impact on builders’ merchants, and the long-term business effect becomes clear. So what’s to be done to keep merchant businesses buoyant and profitable for the future?

Catching them young is half of the solution. The CTI report found 84% of merchants had not recruited a young person into their first job in the last two to three years, and 48% of survey respondents had no contact or links with schools. Engaging with schools, while time-consuming, is the easy part. Ensuring you invest adequately in training and development to keep young people interested in their careers, and alive to the opportunities that timber offers, is the other half of the equation.

As timber and wood products can represent up to a quarter of a general builders’ merchant’s sales, the benefits of trained, confident staff in bringing customers back to the counter can far outweigh the costs. Some years ago, a major merchant hinted that their continuing training of staff on timber and wood products had brought about a 10% uplift in timber sales.

Every customer arriving to purchase timber has the potential to buy add-on items, from ironmongery to tools and paints and so timber is thus one of the most worthwhile categories on which to provide staff training. Displaying good timber knowledge gives customers confidence that you also understand all the other product categories that surround it. So catch ‘em young, and train them well for long-term profitability.

Jim Coulson is director at TFT Woodexperts.

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