Clarity, collaboration and creative thinking will help avoid future skills gaps in the flooring industry, says Adam Buxey, technical services manager at Altro.

THE day-to-day business of training and recruitment has been forced to scale down across the flooring industry during the past two years. Covid-19 restrictions meant most face-to-face training workshops had to be suspended, and training schools (including ours) were closed temporarily.

One positive has come out of this period, however: we’ve had the chance to take a long-term view of training and recruitment, and have had the time to re-evaluate the types of training provision our sector will need, to set it on a secure footing in the future.

One particularly striking thing for me, is that training and recruitment in our industry is undergoing enormous long-term change, not just temporary adjustments driven by Covid-19. There are important seismic shifts in the way young people enter the sector.

The methods by which people develop new skills are changing, and there are untapped human resources that our sector has only just started to recognise. If we’re to plug future skills gaps before they have the opportunity to impact negatively on the commercial success of us all, we’re going to have to think more broadly – ‘outside-the-box’ in fact.

We need to provide greater clarity of the career pathways in our sector, and put aside notions of inter-company competition to find opportunities for collaboration, for the health of the flooring sector overall. In this article I’ll discuss some of the challenges I believe we face as an industry, and will be raising key questions we’ll need to consider in the coming years.

Clarity at entry level
One area in which I see significant shifts in thinking is that of apprenticeships. Every industry needs to attract new recruits at the entry level to replace those with established skills that are reaching retirement age. A key challenge for the flooring sector is that, unless you have a family member already employed in this industry, it is not the first aspect of the construction industry that springs to mind. So while many recruits chase the available placements in bricklaying or plumbing, for example, they can tend to overlook opportunities that our sector might have available.

Government has promoted apprenticeships, and young people and their parents know that they exist, but the practicalities lack clarity. Almost everyone, I think, understands the route from school to university via A levels, and knows that there is a single body managing student loans to make this possible. By comparison, the route to success through apprenticeships is far less clear. There are multiple routes and access points. The financial aspects are not immediately obvious, and the structure of the training can be a grey area.

So an immediate challenge for our sector is how to bring clarity to this process. Could we coordinate the activities we’re making individually as companies, to make the career pathways via apprenticeships more clearly defined and easily accessible for young people and their parents?

Collaboration
As we move forward, collaborations such as this will be increasingly important. A particularly promising development of recent years in regard to training and recruitment has been the way in which businesses in our sector have begun to collaborate with the colleges providing the training courses preparing future candidates for employment in our sector.

This represents, I believe, a fundamental shift in thinking which will have huge benefit for the flooring industry in the future.

For many years, the emphasis in colleges was on the provision of general construction industry skills, rather than specialist trades. As experienced employees take these specialist skills away with them into retirement, and new entrants arrive without the relevant grounding, the result was a degree of deskilling across the sector as a whole.

Altro, along with other manufacturers and installers in the sector, has been active in providing the ongoing skills training needed to address these issues, providing ongoing training for fitters. This aspect of training is continuing to grow. Altro, for example, now has three training schools, providing courses on safety flooring, Whiterock products for walls, and resin floors.

With face-to-face training now back on the cards, there has been an enthusiastic response to the reopening of training schools, with all immediate courses fully booked.

Another positive development, however, has been the commitment by some colleges, over the past two to three years, to develop specialist courses addressing the specific technologies and techniques required by other building trades, including installation of flooring and wall cladding.

Our technical services team at Altro provides an extremely diverse service, which includes the running of Altro training schools. As members of the team have been recruited from both the industry and from the higher education sector, it felt like a natural progression for us to establish collaborations to make these specialist courses possible. We’ve begun to create links with local colleges and hope that some of our Gold Contractors will also be involved in these industry/education networks.

We’ll bring you more information in the coming months, as these initiatives begin to take shape.

These collaborations are proving to be a fantastic way of capitalising on the skills we have within our own organisation. One of our team, David Gatfield, who many of you will already know, has been in the industry for many years and has built-up an extremely broad knowledge.

Linking with these organisations has given us a chance to deepen the knowledge of those developing higher education courses, particularly to familiarise them with the newer flooring technologies. For example, demand for adhesive-free flooring soared during the pandemic, owing to the ability to rapidly install and then remove flooring to suit change of building use.

Skills with these types of product aren’t currently included in the college courses, but will be an essential component in the skill set of the flooring fitter of the future. We’ve all become accustomed to forging relationships with our customers and suppliers to provide training and pass on best practice. But in the future we’ll need to think beyond our immediate list of contacts. We’ll need more touchpoints, exploring opportunities for collaboration more broadly, to create a framework strong enough to support the development of the skills we need.

Creative thinking
Finally, as we get our industry on a secure footing for the future, we’re going to need to think ‘outside-the-box’. We’ve already seen this with the growing importance of remote learning opportunities that do not rely on face-to-face training.

The past year or so has sparked an enthusiasm for online training materials, and at Altro we’re in the process of creating new modules to expand our suite of remote learning courses. These are scheduled for introduction from early 2022 onwards.

We also have much to gain as a sector, however, by applying some lateral thinking. Are there human resources that are currently untapped? Could practical measures that we put in place, or collaborations that we establish, remove the obstructions that are currently preventing potential future employees from entering our industry?

We have, for example, a situation across the construction industry as a whole, in which people with valuable skills are missing out because they don’t have CSCS cards. While younger entrants to the industry may have the relevant paperwork giving them access to site, more established fitters are barred from completing projects on our sector’s behalf because they lack the relevant certification. What could we do as an industry to remove this obstruction and tap into this valuable resource of experienced flooring fitters? What opportunities could our sector create by thinking beyond the existing workforce, and the entry level recruits?

At Altro, one of our trainers, Roger Moore, European technical services manager, has been involved in a really interesting project with HM Prison Onley in Warwickshire which will provide high quality floor-fitting training for men close to the end of their sentence. Karndean Designflooring and Uzin have also provided technical input for this initiative.

The prison has established a 12-week training programme covering subfloor preparation, LVTs, carpet, commercial vinyl flooring and all the finishing techniques needed, to give prisoners a thorough grounding in the skills needed to work as a floor-fitter.

Altro has provided practical support to the prison for some years by donating damaged or returned materials for training schools. But now the partnership has moved to the next level, with input from Altro’s technical and training teams to help structure and deliver a complete training course.

At Onley, the initiative is being driven by Aaron Tucker, the prison’s flooring instructor. Aaron worked as a self-employed floor-fitter in the past and has brought an enthusiasm and passion for the industry to his role at Onley.

As a training prison, Onley provides a wide range of practical options such as carpentry, barbering, gardening, warehousing, as well as qualifications in English, Maths, and IT. It has successful partnerships with education and training providers as well as commercial partners and sponsors, and has now invested in a newly rebuilt flooring workshop to add floor-fitting to the options available.

So, to conclude, the flooring sector has made huge strides in recent years to create ongoing training for existing employees. The experience of lockdown has taught us to look for more innovative ways of providing training however.

As the world in which we operate changes, we all have much to gain from taking a long-term view, and asking ourselves how we can clarify routes to success in our sector, and how we can work together to establish our industry on a firm footing for the future.
www.altro.co.uk