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Heritage buildings at risk due to skills gaps with specialist workers and building professionals

Two reports by the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) launched today (Tuesday 29 April) at The Prince of Wales’s Foundation for the Built Environment, highlight serious skills and knowledge gaps affecting specialist workers in England and building professionals working across the UK built heritage sector.

Encouragingly, the shortage of skilled craftspeople to work on England’s historic buildings has been greatly reduced since the first NHTG report in 2005. However, the future of the five million pre-1919 buildings in England could be at risk as most of the workforce undertaking repair and maintenance work does not possess all the skills required to do the job properly.

Similar knowledge gaps affect the majority of the building professionals who specify, commission and oversee this work across the UK and this is exacerbated by recruitment difficulties in the professional ranks of the sector.

The Traditional Building Craft Skills in England study, backed by ConstructionSkills and English Heritage, shows that the shortage of craftspeople in this sector has reduced by 3,000 since 2005, when the NHTG announced a skills shortage of 6,590. The number of craftspeople in the sector is around 109,000 compared to fewer than 90,000 in 2005, but with only 36% percent of contractors working on pre-1919 buildings it is estimated that only 33,000 craftspeople undertake work with traditional materials.

While around 16,000 mostly new entrants were identified as requiring some form of traditional building skills training in 2007, the evidence suggests that over two-thirds of the work, of which 67% is for private home-owners, is being carried out by those without the right skills and materials. This is detrimental to the buildings and stores up future problems and unnecessary extra cost to rectify.

Home-owners have experienced difficulties in the past 12 months sourcing particular trades, with 16% reporting general trades/craftspeople hard to find rising to 21% for joiners and roofers, and 26% for carpenters. Levels of satisfaction with quality have declined considerably since 2005 (very satisfied down from 60% to 42% for public and commercial stockholders and 60% to 39% for private owners). Those very satisfied with completion times is up from 35% to 43% for public and commercial stockholders and down from 45% to 16% for private owners. This reflects the difficulty in finding contractors to undertake small jobs for domestic clients and that builders fit these around larger projects.

The National Heritage Training Group is now focussing on ensuring that individuals working on traditional buildings receive the required training and guidance. This expands the work over the past three years, including improved recruitment and careers advice, developing heritage-specific qualifications and a programme for mainstream construction course college trainers to improve their understanding of traditional building methods and materials.

The second UK-wide report, Built Heritage Sector Professionals,
assessed skills and training of architects, engineers, surveyors, conservation officers and other professionals – the gatekeepers for this sector.

However, of the half million professionals working in the UK, only 507 are building conservation-accredited. This equates to one accredited surveyor for every 85,000 traditional buildings, and only one engineer with relevant conservation experience for every 276,000 pre-1919 structures. The report also shows that new recruits may be ill-equipped to replace experienced professionals approaching retirement, creating a vacuum in this part of the industry.

Working on heritage buildings, which are mostly privately owned, formed one third of all professionals’ workload over the past year, but almost two thirds of workers do not believe their education prepared them adequately for this work and their knowledge is self-taught.

And, although nearly two thirds of professionals stipulate that this type of work should be carried out by experienced contractors, half of these report difficulties in finding qualified or experienced craftspeople, echoing the findings of the Traditional Building Craft Skills in England report.

The NHTG will now be working with its partners in the home countries to increase demand for suitably skilled and building-conservation accredited professionals and maximise the number of high-quality entrants into the sector by strengthening building conservation components within mainstream built environment courses. There is also a need to develop flexible training and improve advice and guidance on traditional building skills and materials and link these to the sustainability agenda.

Peter Lobban, Chief Executive of ConstructionSkills, said: “We’ve taken some giant steps to ensure that more people are taking up these traditional building crafts that are so important to preserving the country’s heritage buildings.

“But there is more work to do. Many of the people undertaking repair and maintenance work on pre-1919 buildings need upskilling to guarantee that tasks are completed to the highest possible standard and England’s iconic and more humble buildings are not spoilt. To address this issue, we have developed a variety of flexible on-site training schemes and new heritage qualifications.”

The Traditional Building Craft Skills in England report also found that:

  • Demand for maintenance work on historic buildings has rocketed in the past three years, with the market now estimated to be worth a massive £4.7 billion, up from £3.5 billion in 2005
  • The vast majority of contractors in the built heritage sector are general builders and, on average in the past 12 months, 36% of their work has been on pre-1919 buildings
  • Only 37% of tutors running construction-related qualifications in further education colleges are able to teach traditional building skills

The Built Heritage Sector Professionals report also found that:

  • Most professional firms (85%) expect their workload to either stay the same or increase in the next 12 months
  • Over a third of professional practices reported difficulties recruiting professionals, which is most prevalent among architects and engineers
  • Nearly three-quarters of firms report not having a formal training and development strategy in place
  • Demand for formal education specialising in the built heritage sector is currently low, and there are funding concerns that could affect this further

Bill Martin, Director of Conservation at English Heritage, said: “The serious shortage of craftspeople that was highlighted in our first report three years ago captured the imagination of many people and has resulted in a huge renewal of interest in careers in the heritage build sector. The 3000-strong force of new blood is crucial to addressing the succession problem within the sector. We may be reversing a trend but clearly there is still lots to do to make sure the quality of work is maintained. These skills issues affect not just listed buildings, but the whole swathe of undesignated and locally important heritage and conservation areas that form an integral part of the historic environment.”

The National Heritage Training Group and its partners will now be investing £1 million to help reduce the skills gap, to be spent on initiatives including:

  • Raising awareness of the built heritage sector and career opportunities through information and advice leaflets and brochures, plus a website and dedicated phone line, taster days and careers workshops
  • Encouraging up-take of qualifications such as the Heritage Skills NVQ Level 3 and a Heritage Apprenticeship Programme
  • Supporting Regional Heritage Skills Action Groups – providing training and skills development to meet regional demand and need
  • A mentoring programme, with experienced craftspeople passing on skills and knowledge to less experienced practitioners
  • Expanding the number of National Heritage Training Academies

Mike Moody, Chairman of the National Heritage Training Group said, “As an employer in this sector, I know too well the value and importance of retaining a skilled workforce. This is essential if we are to maintain the highest possible standards of workmanship, as well as remaining commercially successful. The work of the NHTG has helped reduce the skills shortage, but we will now redouble our efforts to address the skills gaps for both craftspeople and building professionals to ensure we properly care for and maintain our built heritage.”

For further information about the National Heritage Training Group, please visit:

For further media details please see the full press release.

Built Heritage Sector Professionals Report

Traditional Building Craft Skills in England Report

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