With traditional skills in restoring historical buildings in short supply, the opportunities for a career in the sector are alive and kicking.

Historic buildings may be the latest area to get the television makeover treatment, but it will take more than glossy production values to hide a worrying statistic. This is that today there are fewer than 40,000 craftsmen with the necessary specialist skills to maintain Britain’s historic environment, which includes more than 430,000 listed buildings.

The good news is that for those thinking about a career in this less conventional, more traditional part of the construction industry, the opportunities are mounting.

In August, the Heritage Lottery Fund invited applications for a £4m bursary scheme to save traditional building skills. Sharon Goddard, a policy adviser at the fund, says that the response to the bursary scheme has been encouraging, with 49 applications for grants from partnerships between local colleges and heritage sector organisations. A decision on which schemes to proceed with is currently being taken.

Of course, many specialist restoration firms have in-house training facilities. Cathedral Works Organisation, for example, which has just completed the relocation of Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar to Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral, is a CITB-ConstructionSkills accredited assessment centre for stonemasonry.

However, as the Temple Bar project suggests, many restoration firms concentrate on prestigious historic buildings. This leaves a huge element of the heritage sector uncatered for. Goddard explains: “What we’re targetting are niche areas: lime mortar; difficult types of roofing materials, carpentry skills for farms and vernacular buildings, dry stone walling.”

Ancient and curious-sounding skills such as flint knapping (the cutting and shaping of flints to enable them to be used for building), harling (the applying of a roughcast render) and pargeting (decorative external plasterwork) are in serious danger of dying out. Indeed, in Suffolk there are believed to be only three pargeters capable of reproducing the plasterwork for which East Anglia is famous.

Dry stone walling, which has left such an indelible mark on the British rural landscape, is another case in point. There are only 230 dry stone wallers registered with the Dry Stone Walling Association and, although the DSWA runs examinations and the craft is enjoyed by many on a recreational level, the profession has no official apprenticeship scheme. David Griffiths, a master craftsman dry stone waller from Yorkshire, says: “Walling in dry stone has been with us since Stonehenge. However, there are now very, very few young people entering the profession.” Indeed, of the 1200 general members of Britain’s Dry Stone Walling Association, only 20 are 16 years old or younger.

For these ancient crafts, the trainees provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s bursary could be a lifeline. The fund, which already provides financial support for heritage maintenance schemes such as at Maulden Mausoleum in Bedfordshire (above), is hoping to work up the selected training schemes in more detail by June. All being well, the first heritage skills trainees will be starting their placements in January 2006.

For those who feel they can’t wait that long, Goddard says the Heritage Lottery Fund also tries to help people find schemes through the National Heritage Training Group, a network of contractors, heritage bodies, trade unions and training providers. This was formed in February 2003 to assist in qualifying the UK’s construction workforce in traditional building crafts. Although the group does not currently provide courses itself, it does point users towards short courses and, for those with NVQ Level 2, NVQ Level 3 courses. It is also currently concluding a massive research project focusing on skills needs in the industry, so expect more news in the new year.

For more information go to www.nhtg.org