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CRAFT TRAINING IN THE BUILDING
INDUSTRY
Bob Bennett discusses the
decline of apprenticeships and
modern alternative approaches
Walk onto a building site where conservation works are being carried out and you may be fortunate enough to come across a skilled craftsman who is as often as not of the older generation or who might even have come out of retirement. Talk to a plasterer and he will reminisce about the long hours he spent as an apprentice teasing out animal hair on the bench with two lengths of riven lath, long before he was allowed to mix mortar or handle the tools. A carpenter would explain how he released the blade from a box plane and spent time on an oilstone honing the blade before he was considered to be competent to work a simple piece of carpentry. The mason, the plumber, the thatcher and the decorator would recount similar experiences. So few tradesmen today have served a full apprenticeship of sufficient quality to set them apart as craftsmen. This dearth of experts capable of carrying out traditional building practices is probably the direct result of a number of factors each in itself relativelyinsignificant but, cumulatively, sufficient to come close to destroying the industry.
It is unlikely that James Callaghan could have foreseen the impact on the building industry of the Finance Act of 1966 withinwhich provisionwas made for the imposition of Selective Employment Tax. This resulted in employers being taxed on every employee and in order to minimise that liability there was reluctance to recruit apprentices who would not be earning their keep for some time. Inevitably, as advertised positions declined, there was a movement towards self employment and skills had to be learnt on the job, the input of the master craftsman being absent. It is a sad reality that an employed master craftsman has neither the time nor the inclination to train a self employed casual worker.
Fifty years ago a typical middle sized building company would be run by an entrepreneur, probably second or third generation of the same family, with an established builders yard and a payroll of a number of master craftsmen, tradesmen and at least one apprentice learning each of the skills. Go to a similar company today and, as often as not, you will be met in a reasonably smart office, housing the managing director, a front man, a couple of estimators and an accountant. The yard has long since been sold and developed as small scale retail units. As there are no master craftsmen, tradesmen or apprentices, all the work is sub-let, inevitably to the cheapest bid, and the accountant rules. As so few firms fmd it cost effective to employ their own manual staff, there is no structure for the training of apprentices. The only formal education offered in universities and colleges is orientated to the use of modern building materials, such as concrete and steel, and what little practical training is given serves simply as an introduction to the subject.
The recently introduced N/SVQs could be a move in the right direction but, while the mainstream education is probably quite well covered, there are inevitable gaps in the fringe subjects. Stonemasons, for instance, have expressed their grave concern on finding that the N/SVQ for their trade talks in terms of a 1:1:6 mortar being the ‘norm’!
Several organisations have attempted to address this situation by offering a variety of theoretical and practical training courses in both historic materials and the attendant skills. The Lime Centre at Morestead, near Winchester, and the Scottish Lime Centre Trust in Edinburgh provide programmes of practical courses throughout the year. In 1991 a group of
professionals working with traditional materials and maintaining traditional skills, including the two Lime Centre Directors, formed the Building Limes Forum and a number of Forum members also offertraining similar to that afforded by The Lime Centres. The Building Limes Forum attracts international membership and leading speakers from both at home and abroad address the annual conference. The conference itself is unusual in that there is the opportunity for the delegates to take part in practical demonstrations, thus helping them to recognise good practice and improve their personal skills.
Fortunately in this country training and standards of work are closely linked in all areas of traditional building repair and conservation. Training and experience are essential to the development of skills and understanding, which are themselves essential to the achievement of good site practice and appropriate standards of work. In turn, valuable experience and understanding, developed as a result of good site practice, contribute to the defmition and expectation of standards which must be supported by appropriate training.
In the crusade for training and a better understanding of historic building materials the local council Conservation Officers must surely be seen as front line troops, in need of full support not only from their own local authority but also from all the professional bodies associated with the care of historic buildings. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Cadw, together with several other organisations, make a great contribution to identifying historic buildings in need of care. But it is, after all, the Conservation Officer
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