Are traditional trades set in stone?

Cuts to TAFE over the past five years have left Australia with a nation-wide apprentice shortage that is particularly affecting traditional trades, such as stone masonry. Building Connections' Adelle King reports.

A recent study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research found that Australia is in the midst of a national skills shortage in trades, with the number of Australians beginning an apprenticeship falling by nearly 20% over the past year.

The research found that there are not enough apprentices being trained to meet growth in the demand for new labour or to replace retiring workers. According to ABS data, tradies are an ageing population, with 14% of all tradespeople aged 55 or over.

‘Traditional’ trades, such as stonemasonry, are facing particularly tough skills shortages and have been added to the National Skills Needs List. However, despite the demand for skilled tradespeople, data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research found only 56% of apprentices who began training in 2010 had continued to work in their trade four years later. One third of construction workers pulled out of an apprenticeship within the first year and TAFE NSW says trade enrolments are down from 26,000 in 2011 to 21,800 in 2016.

These statistics point towards an alarming trend that could see trades like stone masonry in danger of disappearing in Australia, with the country facing a shortage of stonemasons almost continuously since 2005 according to the Department of Employment.

“I have a list of employees that would like to take on apprentices so there could be growth but were finding it hard to get people to sign up and there’s just not enough young people who want to come on board as a stonemason,” says Holmesglen stonemason trainer David Williams.

One of the employees struggling to find enough young stonemasons is the Traditional Restoration Company, which undertakes facade condition reports, building diagnostics and remediation, and provides industry advice on materials science. The company usually employs three apprentices but this year has only one.

“We’ve found it hard to find apprentices this year. We’re working on quite large projects, including restoring three buildings on Cockatoo Island and replacing 26 gargoyles at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra but we’ve found it difficult to find apprentices who want to train in stone masonry,” says Traditional Restoration Company head of stone processing Kris Krawczyk.

Traditionally, stonemasonry work was focused on carving and sculpture but the field has since diversified and stonemasons now work in a variety of contexts, including heritage buildings, new construction, monuments and ornamental sculptures. The monument side of the industry has been hit by pre-fabricated and mass produced Chinese products that Australian stonemasons have been unable to compete with. However, the construction side of stonemasonry has seen a boom in recent years, with the number of stone walling and stone kitchen benchtops in homes increasing. While the bench-tops are still generally Chinese-made, Australian stonemasons are the ones re-polishing the edges, cutting the joints to fit and then installing them.

“The bench-job side of stonemasonry has been getting bigger and bigger and there are companies looking to take on apprentices that can’t seem to fill the void. That’s why a lot of big players have been taking on people qualified under visas,” says David.

The two sides of the industry require different specialised skills and tools, with the heritage side making use of traditional mallets, chisels and few power tools, while the bench-top side predominately uses power tools and mechanical machines. This has meant that as bench-top stone masonry expands, traditional manual skills are being lost.

A report by the International Specialised Skills Institute, Traditional and Contemporary Practices in the UK Stone Industry, which looked at how the Australian stone industry can learn from the UK, found that the most significant gaps in knowledge and skills in Australia were in traditional fields. These included masonry restoration, letter cutting, carving and detailing, masonry construction and sculptural design and practice.

In NSW, the Office of Environment and Heritage became concerned these declining skills were starting to impact on the quality of the restoration being done on the states heritage works. In February the Office of Environment and Heritage created the Heritage Round Table Initiative for key government agencies, TAFE NSW and other stakeholders to discuss opportunities to bridge these gaps in training.

Heritage sites, such as the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, make use of traditional trades, including stonemasonry, a skill that could be in decline.

The round table found that although stonemason training, including the courses run through Holmesglen, included a balance between new technology, digitalisation and traditional skills, other contractors who work on restoration projects were not receiving heritage awareness.

“Trade apprentices aren’t being given overall heritage awareness, yet there is an increasing shortage of skilled tradesmen with heritage skills. As a result, we’re seeing a lot of builders come onto heritage sites wanting to be able to use modern techniques, products and technology without understanding when you need to conserve the original and when you have license to do something else but make it look like it hasn’t been disturbed. Without basic knowledge there can be damage done to the estate,” says TAFE NSW project director of civil construction and infrastructure Ron Wright.

Ron says if training moves towards a model where all apprentices are provided with heritage awareness, the actual trade skills could follow. More young people will be exposed to the heritage industry and the trades associated with it, such as stonemasonry.

“The evidence points to the need for a multi-pronged attack. At one end we see a need for basic heritage awareness training for any worker engaged on a heritage site to ensure the integrity and fabric of the site is protected. At the other end, there is a need for specialist heritage skill training for existing tradespeople and apprentices in specific trades, which might be considered heritage master classes,” says Ron.

TAFE NSW hopes these courses will ensure Australia has enough trained skilled workers to perform critical heritage and restoration projects.

“There is still a need and a market for stonemasonry in Australia so unless we train people up ourselves then companies are going to be looking overseas for the expertise,” says David.

The Traditional Restoration Company has been using project sites as a way to bring greater awareness to the stonemasonry trade and showcase the importance of these skills to the community. The company hopes this awareness will lead to a growing number of young people becoming interested in the trade and taking up apprentices.

“We were restoring Sydney Town Hall and on the site we incorporated a small unit with a glass front so people could stop and have a look at how these projects are done. There are still parts of the jobs that are completed by hand so it was good for people to see those skills,” says Kris.

Although government cuts to TAFE, including a decline in funding of close to 15% over the last 10 years according to Stop TAFE Cuts, have put vocational courses under pressure, the 2017-18 Australian Government budget could offer new hope.

Declining training numbers were mentioned in the budget and, while it didn’t include new investment for the training sector, a $1.5bn Skilling Australians Fund was announced to replace the National Partnership Agreement on Skills. This aims to create 300,000 new apprenticeships over four years. The budget also increases fees for university courses, which could see a rise in TAFE enrolments.

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research has found that in regards to employability, cost and earning potential, trades often surpass university degrees, and there are an increasing number of news articles discussing the grim job outlook for graduates.

“I think we’re in a period where people are starting to realise that university isn’t always the best path and hopefully we’ll see a swing back where more young people start entering trades, especially the forgotten ones,” says David.

About the author: Adelle King, Building Connection

For 28 years, Building Connection has been the primary source of technical content for the industry – developing targeted content to help industry grow, to educate the building industry professional, and to interpret the changing regulatory and technological environment. Primarily targeting the micro-builder (1–10 staff), Building Connection provides the market with independent, well-researched technical advice, through an investment in their own researchers/editors and the support of experts columnists. Their readers’ businesses focus on the booming renovation/new build and repair sectors and as small businesses, these industry professionals are normally difficult to communicate with and influence. For more articles from building connection click here.

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