Skills shortage: “We have to do more”

The skills shortage in our industry has long been discussed. It was a problem before the perfect storm hit – historical low levels of unemployment combined with the fall out from the pandemic, and a lack of international labour following Brexit. And all at a time when our order books have never been fuller.

As an industry we have been very good at discussing the issue in great depth, but it’s time to pull together and put those words into positive and prolonged action.

What was your dream career?
‘Windows and doors’ and ‘dream job’ are words you’ll rarely hear uttered together. In fact, if you were to go outside and ask 100 people to name their top five dream jobs, we’re certain “working with windows and doors” wouldn’t feature too prominently.

And yet, the fenestration industry is worth billions to the UK economy. These are products we all use, every single day. The practical benefits are there for everyone to see. But look a little closer and it’s the innovation, creativity and technical expertise that truly stands out.

Our technologically driven industry has been leading the way in manufacturing excellence and innovation for decades, and will continue to do so for decades to come. So, why are we locked in an ever-increasing struggle to attract skilled workers?

Growing up in the 21st century, young people leave education with aspirations of exciting jobs in amazing spaces, Unfortunately, they don’t associate those with factory work. Jobs in manufacturing, in general, are viewed as ‘old school’; they go into them as it’s a family trade, and people often believe there isn’t room for progression: where you start is where you end up.

Perception plays a huge role. Growing up in the 21st century, young people don’t dream about careers in factories. Jobs in fenestration, and manufacturing in general, are viewed as primitive, repetitious, low-paid, and somewhere people end up when they have run out of options. Anybody who works in fenestration knows this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Opportunities within our sector are exciting and endless; career paths are extensive and rewarding; progression is actively encouraged. These are the facts we need to become better at promoting, shattering outdated misconceptions in the process.

How do we change perceptions?
The skills shortage issue didn’t appear overnight, and it won’t be solved in a matter of weeks. But positive steps can be taken now.

Finding ways to make our industry a more attractive proposition to work in seems the logical place to start. There has to be a desire to want to work within manufacturing, not a downbeat ‘I’ll have to settle for this’ attitude.

Developing and nurturing the next generation is vital if we are to achieve this goal. This involves finding out what motivates young people – training, qualifications, incentives, career fulfilment – and understanding the best way to communicate this to them.

Veka staff regularly visit secondary schools, explaining to pupils what the business does and how they [pupils] could be a part of it. Veka also hosts parents’ evenings, to demonstrate how a career at Veka is a promising career choice for their child.

We host regular factory tours, and also offer work experience through the Prince’s Trust. If these initiatives were working though, we would already be reaping some of the benefits. The truth is, we have to do more.

Apprenticeships are often held up as a global solution to the skills shortage. It’s an area where Veka has a proud history, having started its first scheme in 1994.

Working alongside Themis at Burnley College, we currently have four engineering apprentices. And that number is set to grow, after we committed to taking on a record number over the next 12 months.

Apprenticeships will be crucial in helping bridge the skills gap, and they will certainly form part of any long-term solution. But we want to offer these people more than just a qualification when they step through our doors.

This apprenticeship programme has been designed specifically around Veka, in partnership with Themis at Burnley College, and will help develop each employee’s life skills through various activities and events. We want to build careers at Veka, not just jobs. Teaching people the skills to deliver products and services of exceptional quality is an area of the business we have always committed time and resources to.

But we want to push beyond that now, by nurturing a workforce that continually acquires skills, not just for professional advancement but personal betterment too. How we promote these opportunities to people outside the business will be key in tackling the skills shortage issue.

Even with increased investment in apprenticeships and training, we recognise these are only the first steps in a much longer journey, a journey the industry must embark on together. After all, this isn’t a problem that Veka, or anybody else, can solve on their own.

This is a sector-wide dilemma – a global issue – and it’s one that requires a collective and concerted effort. It’s up to us all, now, to show future generations there’s a bright future in fenestration. And there’s no time like the present to start doing this.

Paul Armstrong
Operations director, Veka Plc

Gabriela Hammond
Head of HR, Veka Plc