Linford Group chairman David Linford is taking drastic action to help plug the heritage skills gap, such as building a new training centre, swapping workers with firms abroad – and even recruiting in primary schools.
The under-sixes could help provide the solution to the construction industry's desperate shortage of skilled heritage workers, believes David Linford. As he approaches the end of a distinguished career, both as chairman of Linford Group, his family firm, and as flag-waver for training in the industry, Linford is turning his mind to the younger generation.

"You have to go down and down the ages," he says. "We had some five-year-olds who sat on a floor on a site. We asked them to distinguish between different materials in a sack. They think it's really fun."

Sixty-nine-year-old Linford is heading a skills drive, called the National Heritage Training Group, aimed at a finding recruits for what has become a burgeoning industry subsector. The success is a combination of good PR, provided by BBC's Restoration – in which viewers voted for the listed building they most wanted to preserve – and the availability of lottery funds. However, the television show and English Heritage stress that this success is relative – it has merely distressed the veneer of the work needed. The EH register of properties at risk is 1500 buildings long.

The problem is that the present level of demand has stretched the labour market to snapping point, especially in Greater London. "The boom in the late 1990s attracted a lot of national contractors, who didn't have a great deal of directly skilled employment," Linford says, explaining that this has led contractors to use foreign workers. "I've just heard of a labour agency which has 2000 Poles on its books."

Charles Clarke, the secretary of state for education, recently expressed the view that the British workforce needed to pull up its collective socks, so the NHTG is entitled to expect a bit of support from government. The problem is that nobody knows how much support is needed, because nobody knows how many skilled workers are needed – there is a dearth of statistics on the skills available for work on historic buildings.

The NHTG was formed earlier this year by, among others, the Construction Industry Training Board and EH. According to its business plan, published last month, there are fewer than 40,000 people skilled in conservation crafts. But after talking to members of trade body Heritage Building Contractors Group, which he also chairs, Linford believes that the true figure could be a more encouraging 100,000.

Apprentices have to travel 100 miles, to York, Bath, Weymouth or London. It’s one whacking great desert in the Midlands

However, Linford admits he has no idea how many of them are properly trained. "I would like to say: a heck of a lot of them. The problem is there have never been any studies of what makes up this industry – it's all through anecdote." One of the first tasks of the NHTG is to address this knowledge gap.

As ever, lack of training provision is blamed for the shortage of trained personnel. Linford's Staffordshire-based firm, which has a CV that includes restoration work at the Tower of London and the Bodleian Library at Oxford, struggles to find a college that trains apprentices beyond NVQ level 2. "They have to travel 100 miles, to York, Bath, Weymouth or London. It's one whacking great desert in the Midlands," he says.

One way of getting round this is to bring the training in-house – and that is what the Linford Group has done. It has built a training centre for 40 students at the Lichfield College of Art, on land next to its headquarters. When it opens next September, the centre will offer a mix of academic study and practical experience. But Linford has higher hopes: "If we get this right with the college, we can start to offer students to other contractors in the Midlands with the same problem."

Despite his worries about importing foreign workers, Linford has begun to forge partnerships with contractors in Germany, Italy and France to plug temporary skills gaps. Linford draws on skilled operatives from abroad when jobs reach their peak and reciprocates when work is needed across the Channel. "Once you get over the language barrier, there are great benefits in the exchanges. It's been very, very useful and, I think, will continue to grow."

So how is Linford going to attract interest in what some may see as fuddy-duddy work? Linford points to increasing pay for skilled heritage workers and to decent career prospects – Stuart Carter, a Linford Group apprentice who joined in 1980, became the firm's contracts director in September.

Personal effects

Are you a fan of modern architecture? I don’t like Libeskind’s spiral at the V&A.
What did you think of the BBC series Restoration? I had mixed feelings. It was a bit slow, but quite entertaining. I had the feeling that a number of the projects featured would have been funded anyway.
You were trained as a building manager. What craft would you like to have learned? Woodworking.
Which building would you like to see restored? Mavisbank in Edinburgh, a neoclassical villa from 1736.