IOC’s rebirth – timber training on track for the future

Posted: Aug 7, 2019

Interesting piece from Mike Jeffree, Consultant Editor, TTJ on the IOC.  


Geoff Rhodes addressing attendees at Building Crafts College London City Hub President
IoC City Hub welcome signage, Accrington & Rossendale College, Lancashire A&R
IoC City Hub welcome signage, Newcastle College, Tyneside Newcastle
Tabitha Binding TRADA University & FE College Engagement Manager addressing Newcastle City Hub attendeesTrada
York College welcoming apprentices to their open days York
Mark Crosby CITB regional manager (North East) addressing  Newcastle City Hub attendees CITB  

IOC’s rebirth – timber training on track for the future

The rebirth of the Institute of Carpenters over the past 12 months is focused on bringing industry and education together to train and nurture talent for the future of the UK woodworking sector. Mike Jeffree, Consultant Editor Timber Trades Journal reports

It has probably never been more important or urgent for us to understand, explore and exploit timber and wood products’ multiple properties and benefits ­­– or for the timber trade to explain and communicate them clearly to the wider marketplace. Wood is increasingly recognised as the prime manufacturing and construction raw material for our age. At a time when we know we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and other finite resource-based materials, wood is the ultimate in natural renewability.  

Now that curbing and mitigating climate change is our prime imperative, the fact that trees absorb the main greenhouse gas, CO2 and store it through its lifetime is a win win outcome. The use of wood is low energy to process, light, strong and versatile. In construction, new products such as more advanced wood-based sheet materials, modified timber and engineered timber products including glulam and cross laminated timber, are also enabling us to build bigger, taller and more technically ambitious structures.  

So, dealing in a material with an increasingly technical, but positive story behind it, that is being used in ever more advanced, higher specification applications, what the woodworking trade needs more than ever is a skilled, knowledgeable workforce, capable of realising timber’s potential and delivering the sector’s messages to specifiers, end users and ultimately consumers.

Enter the Institute of Carpenters (IOC) and its aim for ‘rebirth’ under president Geoff Rhodes to revitalize and reimagine UK carpentry, joinery and woodworking education and skills training, working with colleges and other educational bodies nationwide and linking them more closely with the industry. The mission, to create a new framework that meets the developing training needs of a fast-changing industry in an increasingly competitive demanding market facing a mounting skills shortage.

The IOC grew from the Worshipful Carpenters’ Company (WCC). The latter was focused on maintaining the standards and skills of the woodworking crafts since the middle ages, but started properly to formalize the sector’s training in the nineteenth century.

The Carpenters’ Company Examination in Carpentry and Joinery was first taken in 1888 and passed by 13 candidates! Subsequently, the Institute of Certified Carpenters, today’s IOC, was established in 1890.

Through the 20th century, the Institute evolved to support craft and skills training, with generations of employees joining and membership ultimately topping 3,500 in 1970.

Since then, however, its influence has waned. Economic booms and busts and particularly their impact on construction, saw membership decline and the attrition in apprenticeships and emergence of new forms of education and qualification, notably NVQs, resulted in a drift from centrally coordinated industry training to a more fragmented approach. This, felt many, led to the woodworking industry being less able to set standards and ensure training provision met its evolving requirements, hence the craft skills deficit today.

“It reached the point,” acknowledges Geoff, “where the IOC Board of Directors faced a choice: either reinvent itself or wind up.”

For Geoff and colleagues at the IOC, the latter was not an option. He has been in the timber industry all his working life and, as former Marketing and Sales Director of Medite, he pioneered the introduction of MDF in the UK and market education about this revolutionary new product. Throughout his career he has also been committed to improving industry training, to establish career paths based on education and qualifications in order to attract and retain new young talent and help the sector develop for the modern era. As Timber Trade Federation (TTF) President, he worked to advance skills and knowledge levels and set training standards. As a consultant since retiring from Medite, he has also been one of the principal architects of an industry scholarship and mentoring initiative at Edinburgh Napier University for graduates taking the MSc in Timber Engineering and the newly launched MSc in Timber Design in Architecture

As IOC President, he is determined to follow through and build on its five-year plan, agreed in 2017, to reimagine its role and gain new relevance. He accepts it will be a challenge, but is intensely optimistic.

“We  have much to do, but based on the plan and our recent review, produced by Peter Travis of + Travis, the IOC now has a clear sense of direction and is building a nucleus of committed, energetic,  enthusiastic members across the UK who can drive our rebirth,” he said.

The IOC’s core City Hub strategy of creating new links and networks with educational establishments is already underway and building momentum.

“Following our successful pilot City Hub meetings over the last year in Further Education (FE) colleges in London, Accrington and Newcastle, we have seen IOC student numbers grow dynamically,” said Geoff. “We now have 250 and rising and a fantastic opportunity to build a stronger interaction with this younger group nationally through respective IOC-linked colleges.”   

The City Hub initiative gives craft skills students’ access to the expertise and knowledge of experienced IOC member professionals, the wider industry and other collaborating organisations, as well as supporting colleges’ curriculum development. Such has been the success of the three pilots, it was decided in June 2019 to roll the programme out nationwide, with six more City Hubs being established in the next 12 months and an application for funding to the CITB.

As of September 2019, free IOC student membership will also be given to carpentry, joinery and woodworking skills students at all 25 IOC member colleges; an offer communicated to all the member colleges.

A further 40 FE colleges are being invited to take up IOC membership with Leeds College of Building being the latest to subscribe and join. The IOC is stepping up its corporate membership drive and developing collaboration with other trade bodies. In addition to its established relationships with the British Woodworking Federation (BWF), National Association of Shopfitters (NAS) and Timber Cladding and Decking Association, it has recently agreed reciprocal membership links with the Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA), Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and Structural Timber Association (STA).

“These connections expand our collaborative reach across a range of technical timber and wood-based panels supply related issues,” said Geoff. “Partners’ participation in IOC City Hub meetings is now happening and evolving fast”

The IOC strategy, he added, is in ‘full alignment’ with one of the objectives of the WCC in providing ‘support to our craft, by which we mean construction in its broadest sense, as well as traditional timber crafts’. To this end, the IOC also organises and administers the annual Carpenters’ Craft Competition on the WCC’s behalf.

The IOC’s industry partners also welcome its moves to become itself a central coordinating and networking craft skills training hub and knowledge provider for the sector, seeing its strategy augmenting their own training initiatives and programmes at a key moment for timber market development.

“Programmes focused on developing and nurturing new talent, training the current workforce and developing new leaders, are integral to the woodworking industry’s future,” said BWF Chief Executive Helen Hewitt. “This is where key organisations like the IOC can facilitate programmes in partnership with multiple industry stakeholders.”

James Filus Director of the NAS is equally positive. “We’ve been impressed with the IOC’s approach, engaging with further education providers, business, organisations and like-minded trade associations. We’ll support it wherever possible.”

TRADA recently initiated the Momentto project under its University Engagement Programme. This was the design of a timber pavilion for the London Festival of Architecture, produced by five architecture students, built with support from the Building Crafts College and backed by the IOC.  It views the IOC’s City Hub programme supporting more such interdisciplinary ‘design and make’ initiatives positively.  “We’re keen for students to gain practical experience while still in education, as great buildings are designed and built by knowledgeable, experienced professionals,” said TRADA University Engagement Manager Tabitha Binding.

The TTF also backs the IOC’s ambition in ‘connecting and educating the timber supply chain with all users’. “We’re in a knowledge business and it’s vitally important to pass that knowledge on to the next generation,” said Technical and Trade Director Nick Boulton.

Jason Howe at Newcastle College testified to the potential of the IOC’s City Hub initiative after its meeting in the city. “It was a great leap towards promoting the IOC to a younger audience in order to understand what  it can do for younger members starting out in the industry,” he said.

York College Head of Construction Rob Holmes added that it is ‘enormously important that colleges work closer with business to help fill the construction skills gap. “The IOC and York College Carpentry and Joinery department aim  to support each other in ensuring that the quality of our students’ skills, knowledge and behaviours meet the needs and expectations of industry,” he said.

The industry too is backing the IOC. “Education and training for wood workers are more important than ever in an era when good quality, skilled tradespeople are difficult to source,” said MH Southern Managing Director James Southern, on Tyneside

Arnold Laver is another enthusiastic participant in the programme. “We’re really impressed with the IOC’s fresh initiatives and pleased to support craft skills students with site visits, for example, helping them to understand the variety of materials in the sector,” said Managing Director Andrew Laver.

STA Chief Executive Andrew Carpenter maintained that the time is also right for timber construction to encourage industry/academia collaboration. “I’ve never seen such unanimity in terms of housing being the number one political priority, offsite construction being accepted as the ‘silver bullet’ to address our homes requirement quickly and timber being the building material of choice on environmental grounds. The opportunity of a lifetime has to be grasped in the lifetime of the opportunity – and that is now!”

Perhaps the last words though should come from IOC student members themselves. “It’s hugely encouraging to see the strides the IOC is taking to increase its relevance for students and colleges,” said Michael Cooper. “Pilot City Hubs are hopefully the beginning of a valuable resource and active network for those of us entering the industry.”

 "As a recent graduate, complementary membership of the IOC, along with the City Hub programme and the shared knowledge from members and networking opportunities it provides, have been hugely helpful,” agreed Chris Ward.  


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