News | Published November 24 2019

Major parties could be heeding Mark Asplin Whiteley’s warning on skills shortage ahead of December election

Ahead of the 12th December general election, one of the key battlegrounds which is being set for the three major parties is around how the longstanding shortage of skilled workers in various sectors of British industry is to be addressed.

One issue in particular that has been highlighted in both industry and parliament as a cause of the existing skills gap is the move away from vocational training and an increased emphasis on academic subjects, which has proven a bane to UK businesses looking to recruit qualified workers. 

Whitby-based bespoke luxury furniture maker Mark Asplin Whiteley has been a known name in both the London and global bespoke interior design market for over 30 years. Its CEO Mark Whiteley, a master cabinet maker and craftsman, discussed his own education back in the 1970s and how it measures up against the present day curriculum, warning that the move away from practical experience could see the UK’s ‘thriving creative industries’ at risk of ‘losing their pre-eminence in the world’. 

Writing in The Parliamentary Review, Whiteley said: “I was privileged to be at school in the 1970s when woodwork and metalwork was taught. Focus was on the tool and material dynamic – from doing this practical work, intuitions were refined. This early knowledge was crucial to my choosing a career in fine craft. 

“Rycotewood, near Oxford, was the college of choice, to which the UK owes much of its success in luxury furniture manufacturing over the last 40 years.It is crucial for this country to realise that, by not valuing practical experience in secondary schools and engaging in vocational training at centres of excellence, our thriving creative industries could lose their pre-eminence in the world.”

The shift toward academia within the British education system has also come under fire in the House of Lords by Lord Baker of Dorking in a recent debate.

Taking aim at the curriculum implemented by former education secretary Michael Gove during his four year stint with the DfE from 2010 to 2014, Lord Baker said: “It [Gove’s EBacc] does not respond to the needs of the British economy. EBacc is a total and utter disaster. Michael Gove’s successors never tried to challenge it.

“It will absolutely destroy technical education below 16. If you do that, you will not get apprentices at 16. Who is going to employ apprentices who have only done academic subjects? No one.”

However, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have now all outlined plans to reinvigorate technical education and vocational training in the run-up to December’s election.

Seemingly in heed of the warning from industry, the Labour party has promised to invest £3 billion into a free retraining scheme for adults in England should they assume power. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, want to set up a ‘skills wallet’ initiative providing £10,000 to each adult to go toward training courses.

In the case of the Conservatives, a shift of focus back toward vocational training may also be something to expect should they win the election, given the background of incumbent education secretary Gavin Williamson.

As Lord Baker said of Williamson during the Lords debate earlier this year: “He [Williamson] is the first Secretary of State for 10 years who has said anything nice about UTCs…because he came from a manufacturing background and worked with businesspeople in factories.

“Finally the Department for Education realises that we have to do something quite dramatic in order to catch up with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in technical education.”

The Tories already have a National Retraining Scheme in the pipeline for adults who need a whole new skills set, which is set to roll out more widely next year, with the launch of a new vocational qualification known as T-Levels to follow in September 2020.

Whether the schemes will have any success depends upon the winner of the December general election and how well the planned policy can then be implemented, but there is always the chance that a tangible impact may not be seen for some months or years beyond that. The message from industry is clear: action is needed for the skills shortage to be addressed and for now, the three frontrunner parties at least seem to be taking notice.

Yet, there is always some forward-thinking to be done by employers themselves with regards to addressing any skills gap, something that Whiteley has shown in his unique style of managing the business.

Whiteley explains: "My management style is collaborative and intuitive. I work from the premise that it is impossible to micro-manage everything with bespoke work. It is not enough to trust them; I also have to demonstrate that trust clearly to my makers. Ex-joiners or makers straight from college need basic experience.

"To that end, I assign them to a team leader who assesses them by gradually giving them ever more complicated tasks until they reach their limit of comfort and competence. Trusting the team leaders and junior makers to make a myriad of choices, with periodic checking by management, instills a strong sense of ownership."

This management system, as Whiteley adds, breeds not only confidence in one's own work but competence in the profession.

"Competence throughout the workshop rises as each maker observes others’ work, others’ processes and the other makers striving for quality. It is a self-improving and self-perpetuating system that requires little management intervention."

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Authored by

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
November 24 2019

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