BFM survey highlights looming skills crisis - EU migrant workers occupy one in three furniture production jobs

UK furniture manufacturers face serious resource problems if restrictions are placed on the movement of labour to the UK from other EU countries as a result of Brexit.

A British Furniture Manufacturers (BFM) survey of companies, accounting for an estimated 9% of total production employees across the industry, shows that 34% of employees are non-UK nationals from the EU.

Half the businesses surveyed predicted that if curbs were placed on this source of labour, the industry’s skills shortages would worsen, notably among upholsterers, sewers, frame assemblers and wood machinists.

Of the 50 companies that took part in the survey, 52% said they relied on the skills of non-UK EU labour. Some even suggested that any restrictions on accessing this workforce could result in moving more or part of production abroad. The sector that expressed most concern was upholstery, particularly among larger volume producers, some of which employ fewer UK nationals than migrant EU labour.

In-house training, together with apprentice recruitment, was in the plans of most businesses faced with possible labour restrictions, particularly among larger employers about to be affected by the Apprentice Levy (from April 2017).

Also worrying employers was having a ready supply of skilled labour to enable businesses to perform efficiently and meet fluctuating needs. There was clear concern about recruiting British workers of quality, interested in working in a factory environment. Multi- skilling was suggested as one way to meet a skills gap.

36% of the sample is already experiencing problems in recruiting and/or retaining EU labour from outside the UK, with some evidence that Romanian and Polish workers were returning home. One company said the UK was no longer being spoken about, as a place to work, among family and friends.
The survey also asked companies how long it would take to adequately train replacement labour. Responses varied dependent on the level of skill required and local labour availability. The most common replies were up to six months (42%), followed by up to 12 months (25%). One third of the sample considered18 months or more would be necessary.

One company – a small bespoke maker of kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms – commented: “While we do not have any particular problems at the present time, we can envisage a situation whereby - if EU labour is withdrawn from other furniture companies - this will create a general shortage of skilled people and force up wage rates. We think it is likely that it would be well-nigh impossible to find replacement skilled workers or even to find labour to train!”

Said BFM md Jackie Bazeley: “It is essential for the sustainability of the industry that we address the skills gap through education and training. However, this cannot be accomplished overnight and therefore any restrictions placed on recruiting labour from the EU has to have a transition period whereby companies can upskill current employees and/or recruit and train new ones.

“With the advent of the apprenticeship levy, the BFM will be working with peer organisations and Occupational Awards (OAL) to ensure that companies make the most  of all that the levy offers. However companies should now be looking to take advantage of an opportunity to use current apprenticeship funding to upskill current workers.”

The survey findings will now be presented to the British Furniture Confederation with a view to putting a case to government about the industry’s concerns to foster and retain the skills it needs to function.

The BFM survey was conducted by email across a sample of 50 companies (employing a total of 5,267 production workers), representing an estimated 9 % of total production employees in the UK furniture industry – applying the total sample against the official total industry figure in employment (80,000) in the UK furniture manufacturing industry and using the formula 3:1 production vs admin/sales/support staff, equating to 60,000 production employees.

The full report can be found at: here.