The media seems to delight in history at the moment, proclaiming every new economic or industry statistic as the worst since whenever. If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, you’d be forgiven for resorting to Buckminster Fuller’s dismissive scoff that “The only thing that history teaches is that history can teach us nothing”. Personally, I think George Santayana’s words, “Those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it” are much more appropriate.

I’m not saying this sitting in a trade association ivory tower. The constant calls to our BWF helplines tell us just how tough it is out there, reinforcing the industry forecasts. If you can see green shoots at the moment, you’ve probably been smoking them. But things will get better. They always do. As soon as credit and liquidity move back into the economy, the indicators will move up, but I can’t see that happening much before late 2010. Given that the joinery industry trails the construction sector, we have a way to go.

There certainly still is work out there, particularly in public non-housing sectors such as education and health. But increasingly, companies are taking the work that’s going and cashflow, managed carefully, has become king. With joinery quite a way down the supply chain, there is a huge risk of being squeezed on price and payment terms by main contractors. Campaigns such as the government’s Fair Payment Charter appear powerless to change an ingrained industry culture as customers ignore payment terms, pushing settlements back to 60 days, or even longer. And with credit insurance becoming a rare commodity, the cash question will dominate businesses more than ever.

The best market in living memory over the last five years or so has kept us busy and the order books full, with little time to look at the bigger picture. Now, necessity is pushing many joinery businesses to take a long hard look at every aspect of their business management. Working smarter, looking at processes, – what we do, how we do it – retaining the best staff, improving purchasing practices and using resource more efficiently; the scrutiny of all of these things within an overall business review will help a business survive the downturn and prepare itself to take advantage as the market turns up.

The forecasts suggest that while in 2013 we will still be below where we were in 2002, we will certainly be in better times. The question for the timber industry is whether the wood message will really be strong enough to capitalise on the upturn. Over the next five years, downturn or not, there will be no letting up on the focus on environmental issues surrounding the construction industry. If anything this is likely to increase as the market becomes more competitive and intensifying political pressure means regulations become more stringent. We need to ask ourselves whether the timber industry is really tackling those issues in the way that other materials industries have done. Many of these industries have put a huge amount of resource into the science, not just the hyperbole, of sustainability. We need to match their efforts with our own science, look beyond carbon, and work together in a concerted effort to develop the total environmental impact data which will provide the clear, clinical evidence for wood as a sustainable material. The industry needs to wake up to the fact that sustainability is much more than just responsible sourcing.

Finally, back to history – the lessons of history tell us that the abandonment of training when times get tough is a huge mistake. The age profile of the joinery sector shows it still has not recovered from the loss of skills and potential entrants during the 1981-83 recession.

The industry needs skilled people now and it will need skilled people more than ever in 2014. With most of our eastern European workers gone, never to return, the huge indigenous skills gap is no longer covered. If we do not commit to training it will be a chasm in five years time. If businesses cannot invest in anything else in the coming years, they should invest in training, particularly through apprenticeships, which have proved to be an enormous benefit for many of our UK joinery businesses.

My one cast-iron prediction is that we will not go back to the market as it was. There will be huge opportunities for timber in construction of all kinds, based on its performance and aesthetics, backed by strong environmental impact credentials. Now is the time to invest in securing those huge opportunities.