With fewer and fewer people opting for careers in stonemasonry, it could soon become a dying trade. It’s time we did our bit to attract today’s youth
Sustainable design, sustainable materials, sustainable investments: you need only flick through the pages of Building to see how prevalent the concept is. But what about sustainable career choices?
We heard recently that many leading companies in the City have been shedding jobs since the start of this year, but it’s not just financial institutions that are feeling the pinch: the wider economy is suffering as well.
So, with companies increasingly tightening their purse strings, should today’s youth be making more intelligent career choices?
Over a quarter of a million people in the UK work in call centres, fielding customer calls for banks and insurance, energy and utilities companies. These workers are like sitting ducks.
I am told that anyone who takes a job in a call centre must undergo intensive training before they are let loose on the phones. For eight hours a day, they sit in the same position, hour after hour, listening to a multitude of complaints and enquiries.
That’s the reality of life on the white-collar production line.
So why do young people choose this line of work – sitting in rows of desks, in crowded, artificially-lit glass boxes, often on the outskirts of town? And why does the UK have a massive shortage of people entering the specialist construction industry?
Stonemasonry, for example, is among the earliest trades in the history of civilisation, and highly-skilled craftsmen will always be needed to build and repair stone buildings, making it a sustainable career option.
Of course, in an economic slowdown fewer buildings are built, but existing buildings still need to be maintained, and only a specialist can do this.
London, for example, has numerous ancient monuments and buildings of historical interest, and a strict planning code when it comes to the use of natural stone. This means a London stonemason could easily have a job for life. I wonder if people on the trading floors at the big City banks feel as secure in their own jobs.
Young people today are the microwave generation – they want instant gratification. If it takes longer than two minutes it’s not worth the bother
Today, 40 is the average age of a stonemason. In 25 years, these masons will be at retirement age. If we carry on the way we are, with fewer and fewer young people learning the craft, we’ll have a shortage of people who are qualified to maintain the UK’s historic buildings. Will we have to draft in skilled workers from abroad? Will the few masons we do have command the same salaries as today’s stockbrokers?
I think the main problem is that young people today are the microwave generation – they want instant gratification. If it takes longer than two minutes then it’s not worth the bother. Two weeks of intensive training and a pay cheque that will buy you some clothes and a few Saturday nights out seems more attractive than doing an apprenticeship on a site.
The English weather is probably also a big deterrent. Obviously, sitting in a warm call centre is much more comfortable than working outside on a building site in the wind and rain, handsetting stone.
On the other hand, once fully trained and suitably experienced, it is not unrealistic for a stonemason to take home as much as £1,000 a week. Although this is hard-earned, I am sure it is considerably more than what one earns in a call centre.
It must be incredibly isolating working in a place like a call centre. In my opinion, teamwork and a sense of comradeship is what makes the construction industry what it is. We get a tremendous sense of pride from our part in constructing a building, be it cladding or flooring.
And the greatest satisfaction comes from restoring a historic building to the splendour of its youth. I often drive through London and pass high-profile sites, knowing our industry has had a hand in preserving something of real value.
And some projects are truly memorable – when we completed our work on the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, the Opera House put on a special free performance for everyone involved in its restoration. It was a truly spectacular way to round off an important project for us.
Perhaps it’s time schools did their bit to promote stonemasonry and other trades as valuable career choices. More importantly, all of us who work across the construction and specialist trades need to do our bit to promote our industry to today’s youth. We need to demonstrate that learning a trade is one of the most sustainable career choices they could make. We must encourage them to take up tools rather than pick up phones.
Greg Verhoef is director of Szerelmey