Mission Statement

The aim of the Scottish Stone Liaison Group is to enhance availability, promote utilisation and advance knowledge and skills in design, specification and use of indigenous Scottish stone in existing and new build projects.

Skills & training

The SSLG, addressing the question of the available skills within the masonry industry highlights the growing skills shortages (for example, 10% of stonemasons will retire in the next 5 years) and at the same time looks to develop conservation training to ensure that the necessary skills are available. To that end the SSLG was instrumental in convening a meeting to develop the possibility of “conservation” modules being introduced into Scotland. Currently there are conservation modules available in association with NVQ qualifications south of the Border for plastering, carpentry, painting and decorating, masonry and bricklaying but no equivalent modules in association with SVQ qualifications in Scotland, and this is what the SSLG is seeking to address.

With such courses ultimately being available, efforts will be made to encourage the funders of conservation work to ensure that only operatives with the appropriate proven skills are permitted on any grant funded site. This argument is being pursued with Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund with the SSLG Chief Executive attending a meeting in London on the 17th September 2001. This particular meeting is seeking to contribute to a review of the HLF policy on funding training. On the 16th November 2001 the SSLG Chief Executive pursued this issue at the meeting of the HLF which was convened at New Lanark prior to the opening of the refurbished Robert Owen School.

After all, it is obviously in the interests of the funders, with their responsibility to ensure that such monies are spent wisely, to insist that all operatives have the appropriate skills.

SSLG Seminar series

Between October 2002 and April 2003 the SSLG and the NSI held a series of Seminars around the country on the theme: “From Geology to Building - SET(T) IN STONE”. The Seminars addressed issues that affect the entire delivery system of stone, from its creation to its use and maintenance. The Seminar agenda included:

Fewer stonemasons

SERIOUS CONCERN - Information has come to hand which clearly indicates that the Reid Kerr College is increasing the number of trainees required to make a course financially “viable” to 16 and if you build in a drop out factor of only 15% (in reality it is 20%) then the number of trainees required, at the outset of a course, is 19. If this were to become the norm for all colleges then 68% of all construction industry college based courses could close overnight. Concerns have been raised with MSPs, the Scottish Funding Council for Further & Higher Education and other organisations.

It is estimated that there are only 300 stonemasons in Scotland and any threat to the current training structure (having just turned the corner - see information about Elgin facility below) clearly threatens this fragile recovery.

Advancing this matter of skills, a questionnaire was mailed to masonry companies and the returns clearly indicate that 10% of all stonemasons are to retire in the next 5 years. The effect of such will only further erode the skill base and underlines the steps employer WILL have to take to ensure that there is a skilled workforce available for the maintenance of Scotland’s built heritage.

On the ‘skills’ information sought by the SSLG it was a matter of concern that there were only two Colleges providing the necessary college based knowledge. Telford College and the Glasgow College of Building and Printing both provide excellent dedicated workspaces and staff and, as indicated, they willingly assisted the SSLG in its drive to determine the current training position. However they are both central belt colleges necessitating trainees from Inverness, for example, to travel. However, on the 2nd February 2001 Elgin College opened a training facility that had previously been the training facility of Historic Scotland. This is considered by the SSLG as a very positive development but the College will require to attract new trainees from the surrounding areas if it is to survive the economics now applied to Colleges. The number of applicants for this year was 50% greater than could be accommodated (9 applicants for 6 places) with four from employers who had not previously sent trainees to College. It could be argued that opening this facility - effectively enabling college training opportunities within the area - shows what is possible and could be a ‘trail blazer’ for other construction trades to follow. For example, there is no roofing industry trades taught north of Arbroath and no plastering taught north of Dundee.

Trained or training?

Training of course should not be a once in a life-time experience. It is apparent that with the need to blend modern knowledge, practices and skills into the conservation, remedial and restoration work, employers will constantly require to review the skills available within their company. Such awareness is necessary as the current spend in the construction industry shows that maintenance of Scotland’s current built heritage attracts more than 50% of the total expenditure and it is anticipated that this percentage will increase over the years.

Knowing how buildings are put together is becoming more and more important and as the Government attempts to address the ‘cowboy builders’ problems then accredited skills will become more and more important. However, it also has to be borne in mind that every time there is a recession in the construction industry there is a loss of the skills and as the industry climbs back out of recession. Often these skilled operatives have found other jobs and are not attracted back to the industry.

Age profile

Referring back to the questionnaires circulated to employers, the SSLG has established that within the industry a skills shortage exists and is unlikely to get better in the short term. To encourage training opportunities, the SSLG believes that companies on all grant-aided work should be required to provide training opportunities and in this way the funders ensure that the necessary skills are available in the future. So training becomes even more important for employers to ensure that the core workforce has the necessary skills to enable them address the needs of Scotland’s built heritage - ‘warts and all’. Conservation modules

Whilst associated conservation modules are available with NVQ qualifications South of the Border, until the intervention of the SSLG, there were no comparable SVQs in Scotland. This issue has now been addressed with the development of conservation modules for plastering, stone masonry, bricklaying and carpentry and joinery. Such courses should be available as ‘bolt-on’ units for trained operatives from autumn 2002.

On training, it should be noted that for all the complaints from employers about pending skill shortages (Press report in January 2002 indicated that although 80% and 60% of employers report difficulties recruiting bricklayers and joiners respectively) only 36% of all Scottish construction industry companies actually provide TRAINING opportunities AND it is even worse in England and Wales where only 15% of employers assist the training need. For employers that are complaining about skill shortages, yet do not train within their businesses, there can be little sympathy.