Homeowners are waiting months longer than usual for bathrooms and kitchens to be installed as an industry-wide labour shortage that has been exacerbated by Brexit collides with the home improvement binge triggered by Covid-19 lockdowns.
The pandemic has resulted in a huge increase in spending on homes and gardens as money traditionally spent on nights out and foreign holidays is ploughed into room revamps. However, fitters are struggling to meet the demand with the lead times for new kitchen, bathroom or wardrobes spiralling from a pre-Covid norm of four to eight weeks to between 12 and 18 weeks.
Damian Walters, the chief executive of British Institute of Kitchen, Bedroom and Bathroom Installation (BiKBBI), said there has been “unprecedented demand for kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, and home improvement in general”.
Lengthening lead times were the fallout from an “incredible labour shortage” he said, with the trade organisation inundated with retailers desperate to recruit more fitters. There were a number of problems, including an ageing workforce and a dearth of youngsters wanting to take up apprenticeships. Brexit had also deterred tradesmen from moving to the UK for work.
“There are not going to be any tradesmen parachuting in from Europe, or anywhere else for that matter,” said Walters. “EU migration was a little bit like a Band-Aid that’s been ripped off and the real problems have been exposed.”
The performance of B&Q, the UK’s biggest DIY chain, provides a barometer of the scale of the demand. Its sales surged 13% last year as a locked-down nation knuckled down to DIY projects, ranging from laying patios to skimming walls, or picked out new looks for kitchens and bathrooms before calling in the professionals.
With demand so strong and global supply chains still disrupted by the pandemic, contractors have also had to contend with shortages of everything from plumbing materials to screws, fixings, power tools and even the white goods, such as washing machines and fridges, needed to finish jobs.
To try to plug the industry’s skills gap, BiKBBI will kick off a campaign in the autumn aimed at school leavers with a target of recruiting 700 apprentices a year. Without new recruits the problem will worsen as a third of sole traders are due to retire over the next decade, according to its poll of 3,000 firms. Only a sixth of those due to retire had plans in place for someone to take over their business.
“We simply haven’t focused on vocational learning and that has caused huge problems in terms of a gap between the demand and the available labour to do this type of work,” said Walters.
“Put bluntly, we’ve relied for too long on an ageing workforce who are now looking forward to their retirement. We need to pull out all of the stops to prepare a new generation of skilled installers ready to take their place.”