Mind the conservation gap
The Elizabeth Tower is one of many heritage projects by Sir Robert McAlpine
Hannah Prowse, preconstruction manager for Sir Robert McAlpine Special Projects, on tackling the skills gap in conservation.
There is a skills shortage in the heritage sector but our first challenge is to define what that workforce is. With no official current research to look to, we currently have to rely on anecdotal evidence.
Heritage skills – stonemasonry, carpentry, metalwork, plastering, roofing, etc – are carried out by small specialist companies and this pool is dwindling. Across construction as a whole, 45% of the workforce is over 45, according to the latest census. Much has been written about the ageing workforce and the need to attract young people into construction, and excellent work is being done in many areas to change the perception of our industry.
The CIOB’s conservation conference, scheduled for 28 April at Church House, Westminster, and sponsored by Sir Robert McAlpine, has been postponed. The CIOB is now working to find an autumn date for the conference, titled Future Skills for Traditional Buildings. Check http://bit.ly/conservation2020 for updates.
The construction industry is a conglomerate of businesses of all sizes and specialisms, with a history of protectionism and insularity. Most of the industry operates in a competitive market, on tight margins, and so the sharing of knowledge and skill is restricted by the environment in which we operate. As long as the industry continues to operate in competitive silos, this will continue to be the case.
In the heritage sector, we have a fantastic opportunity to attract talent. The buildings that we have the privilege to work on are part of the fabric of our society and our national identity. In an era where many young people are looking for jobs with meaning, inherent sustainability and environmental credentials, heritage construction offers a great career path.
The challenge is how to unite to present a coherent and attractive path to new recruits. Last year, at the CIOB Conservation Conference, we issued a ‘call to arms’ – for interested parties from across the sector to come together to find a solution to apprenticeships and training. The response was non-partisan and overwhelming.
Our first meeting saw representatives from CIOB, English Heritage, Historic England, the Prince’s Foundation, Historic Royal Palaces and the Landmark Trust, sitting alongside colleagues from plasterers, stonemasons, carpenters, main ‘tier 1’ contractors, specialised ‘tier 2/3’ contractors and many more. There was a unanimous recognition of the fact that none of us can solve this problem alone. The scale of the challenge requires a united solution.
The size of the skills shortage has yet to be quantified. Our group have determined to fund a position, with the assistance of the CITB, to conduct rigorous research into the formation of a heritage skills training college, together with ‘satellite’ colleges wider afield. We also believe there is a real need to create a clear chain of custody for shared apprenticeships across the sector.
The heritage sector may “lack a clearly defined consensus” – but it is not an unfeasibly large world. The onus is now on us as an industry to create a solution that links the policy, the funding and the opportunity in a manner that is appealing to people of all ages and from all backgrounds looking for a career. It is a phenomenally exciting opportunity.
This article is produced in conjunction with