Crisis – what crisis? Damian Walters, CEO of The British Institute of KBB Installation, explains why the labour shortage problems the KBB industry is facing could be just the beginning, and why we must act to avert disaster – before kitchens and bathrooms go the same way as solar panels.
"Order books are full, customers are buying and business is great – I hear people saying daily: “It’s the best it’s ever been – never been busier”.
"Well of course, it’s all true. Our recent lockdown and the confining of society to respective four walls has forced a newfound appreciation of our living spaces, and coupled with furlough support and the fact that home improvement could largely continue throughout the pandemic, it’s no wonder consumers are queuing in their droves to improve their living spaces.
"We’ve seen some staggering results published, from the huge profit increases in the shed environment to independents declaring on social media their forward order book brimming into 2022 from as early as July!
"All great right? Yes – it is great. But I’m not sure we should be celebrating as an industry collective just yet. I’m confident the pandemic is in recession, but I’m not sure the symptoms of this bloody virus have even started to surface.
"With demand comes the principle of ‘supply and demand’. With the principle of ‘supply and demand’ comes opportunity. And with opportunity come opportunists – and that’s where I think we should all tread a little cautiously throughout the next few months, or else we could face the same challenges the renewable energy sector faced not so long ago.
"In renewable energy, we had this great new product in solar PV – something that was ethically right to boom. We had our Government incentivising homeowners (and businesses) to install panels on our roofs, we had energy companies paying us for feeding electricity back into the national grid. It was perfect – everyone was a winner!
"So, what went wrong? Quite simply, there weren’t enough trained, accredited, and competent tradespeople to fulfil consumer demand. Everyone was winning for a bit – the industry almost had a licence to print money, but the house soon collapsed, because the foundation of tradespeople didn’t exist. First indication was that a spike in consumer demand led to installation lead times increasing from three weeks to 16 (almost overnight). Then came the old ‘supply and demand’ issues, with rising day rates and affordability becoming a factor.
"Subsequently, and inevitably, came interest from any ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ and before you knew it, anyone who had entrepreneurial spirit and screwdriver became ‘Solar PV specialist’. It didn’t take long before solar panels were being fitted upside down on the houses of Great Britain, creating a stink with consumer complaints and calls on Government to better regulate. The industry ground to a halt. The government withdrew grants and the energy companies dropped the feed back incentives… The reputation of a product that was wholesome was completely tarnished by a bunch of gun-toting cowboys who couldn’t give a care about the professionalism of an industry – or indeed the safety of those who invested heavily in the product.
"A bloody shambles! Well… guess what? The KBB industry, albeit a slightly different route in, is in a very similar position now. There are simply not enough reputable, competent and compliant tradespeople to fulfil demand… and that’s already causing chaos, but in my opinion it will significantly worsen, way before it improves.
"Now, I’m not going to harp on about what we’re doing about it, that’s been well documented and reported recently, but I do want us all to pause for thought and recognise the importance of installation in our respective businesses.
"Installation is not a topic confined to those who sell installations to customers. Whether your business is a supplier, distributor, manufacturer, retailer, logistics firm, marketing & PR business, a recruitment agency or otherwise supplying product or service into the industry – directly or indirectly, installation is integral.
"It’s integral, because no matter how well we innovate and manufacture, no matter how well we distribute, no matter how compelling our product, or however well it’s designed… someone, somewhere will be needed to fit it!
"If the UK continues its pathway, it will be a land without labour, much like the Middle East! Overspilling with cash and a desire to build and improve, but no one there to actually fit it. If product can’t be fitted, perhaps we’ll encourage more people to invest their hard-earned pent-up cash to other competing industries – like the automotive or dare I say holiday industry… and that may just come at a time when we’re all fed up with our four walls and staycations, and desperate for piña coladas and sandy, sunny beaches."