Adrian Attwood believes it is vital that we attract and mould a new generation of craftspeople to the construction industry
While covid-19, post-Brexit restrictions, a new regulatory framework and a digital revolution present challenges to a construction sector gradually trying to evolve, my outlook for 2021 is positive. Significant change is afoot, however I see it as an opportunity to revitalise the industry, particularly reversing the entropy caused by an ongoing skills shortage and an ageing workforce.
A lack of fresh talent coming into the building profession is nothing new, but it is particularly acute for specialist roles, especially in historic building conservation. For me, it is more important than ever that we find ways of encouraging young people to enter the industry, particularly conservation construction, to ensure its longevity.
Similar to 2018’s highly-successful “year of engineering”, I would like to suggest that we make 2021-22 the “year of the craftsperson”.
It starts with education
Given that the sector has already lost a quarter of its continental workforce from the UK, making 2021 the year of the craftsperson is a no-brainer. Educators, building professionals and policy makers now have a golden opportunity to nurture a new pool of talent.
I believe such an initiative will not only inspire young people to consider a career path in construction, but also open up the diverse range of rewarding roles within it. Heritage restoration allows one to see projects from start to finish, and to take on a variety of jobs, from smaller-scale repairs to the complete regeneration of landmarks. It also offers the opportunity to work alongside the custodians of these sites, and advise the architects and engineers who are involved in the renovation process.
There are not as many people undergoing crafts training as there are in other related fields and this has the potential to detrimentally impact our historic buildings
Currently, there are not as many people undergoing crafts training as there are in other related fields, and this has the potential to detrimentally impact our historic buildings and monuments.
In part, this can be resolved by increasing the funding for apprenticeships, but there also needs to be advance planning and investment, along with more clarity and joined-up thinking on the various schemes and grants that are available. It takes a minimum of three years to train a new craftsperson to a competent level, and those entering the profession need to be trained by highly skilled craftspeople. However, because training others does not provide existing craftspeople with any financial incentives, they are not likely to switch from the role of practitioner to teacher.
It is therefore important that we incentivise experienced workers with monetary rewards, and encourage school leavers to join the industry via career fairs, and throughout their education.
The importance of the human touch
Much of the work conducted on heritage sites is done by hand, as many of these buildings were erected before modern mechanical tools and digital solutions became available. Without the human touch, the signature of quality craftsmanship is lost. Certainly, automation has the potential to work well for modern construction, such as large-scale housebuilding or modular building, however it is of less benefit to conservation work, which requires a delicate and intuitive touch as well as a degree of spontaneity.
As the influence of digital increases, an appreciation and understanding of the analogue invariably decreases. We need to halt this trend, lest we allow time-honoured skills to be lost in the ether, which would be a huge shame.
An initiative such as the year of the craftsperson would help to familiarise and get people involved in workshops, where they can feel and smell the materials, allowing them to be a part of something highly creative.
With the use of walk-throughs, fly-throughs and 3D models, people can now explore historic buildings and collaborate more closely than they could in the past
However, while work patterns remain sporadic, there is an important role for digital. Webinars have served as an alternative way for people to learn more about the industry and, with the use of walk-throughs, fly-throughs and 3D models, people can now explore historic buildings and collaborate more closely than they could in the past.
Fortifying the industry’s future
Fundamentally, the year of the craftsperson would provide the long-needed shot in the arm for the sector, simultaneously protecting our heritage, keeping master crafts alive and inspiring a new generation of workers left feeling deflated by the pandemic.
We must teach younger people about the importance of master craftsmanship now, and show how vital it is to the preservation of our nation’s history. We can’t afford to lose these traditional skills as, once they are gone, they are gone.
Adrian Attwood is executive director of DBR (London) Limited