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A qualified workforce: Not yet the end of the World

22 February 2013
Mark Priestman is an NVQ provider for the industry. He can help you develop the training in your firm. See his website for more details.

Mark Priestman has more than 20 years’ experience in the natural stone sector. He plays an active role in the development and delivery of training in this specialist environment. Along with his father, David Priestman, he runs a training consultancy whose mantra is: Qualify the Workforce!

Its 11:11 on 21 December 2012 and I’m just driving past Stonehenge on the A303. Usually when I pass this famous Wiltshire heritage site the visitors are closely studying the remnant Pembrokeshire ‘bluestone’. Today is different. Today the large gathering at the monument is gazing skyward in anticipation of… something. The reason: 11.11am would see the End of the World, or so it had supposedly been prophesied by the ancient Maya people.

It is now 11:12 GMT and no doubt the people gathered at Stone Henge feel somewhat cheated.

But still the lessons of the ancients are worth learning. The question of how, for example, the bluestones got to Wiltshire is worthy of another article and perhaps another column altogether.

Then there are the Egyptians and their pyramids, which we rightly marvel at knowing that today, despite all our technical advances, we would be hard pressed to reproduce. 

Similarly, did you know that the Maya people started using lime mortar and even a form of precast concrete at least 2,100 years before the European’s developed it?

Impressive craftspersonship? Yes. Poor training mentoring? Absolutely!

In short, these ancient peoples had poor training plans! Oh, if only they had telephoned their local ConstructionSkills co-ordinator or attended their sector’s Industry Training Group… the shape of things today might have been very different.

And therein lies our lesson – without mentoring and training skills are lost. 

An even more troubling scenario is perhaps afoot. To equip our sector fully for the future, our skilled workers need not only an in-depth understanding of their specialism (for example, restoration) but a broad awareness of how everything links together, why particular stones are selected, where they are quarried, their tolerances, strengths and weaknesses and even how they might be re-used and recycled in the future.

Training is much more than standing in front of a group of people and telling a good story or presenting the party-line. Training, instructing and coaching are about motivating people to recognise best practice, to be successful in what they do and to be safe about how they do it.

A good trainer understands the position from the listener’s perspective, knows the economy specific to them, and is aware of their particular challenges. 

Training is about qualifying the learner

Qualifying the learner is about recognising skills

Recognising skills is about empowering the learner to succeed

I saw an example of this process a few weeks ago at the Stone Awards. A heritage facade preservation contractor from the East Midlands by the name of Beech Restoration picked up a Highly Commended Award for its restoration of a beautiful castle in Scotland. 

There were lots of other projects that received accolades, but I have personally worked with the leadership and operational teams at Beech and so am picking on it now. 

Beech, like many qualified specialist contractors in the sector, has been in the business for decades. The credentials of the owners are unquestionable – they support the trade federation and comply with the likes of CSCS.

Particularly noteworthy: Beech was among the first contractors in the UK to invest in NVQ training and assessment for its specialist operatives. The company actively mentors its team and develops fresh blood. 

That desire to perform to lofty standards has repeatedly resulted in Beech winning contracts. It has maintained a livelihood for its directors, supervisors and operatives with low-staff turnover.

And now the company has another prestigious accolade for the trophy cabinet.

It's for this reason I salute this contractor and others like it. While the sustainability message of natural stone as a construction resource has a healthy head of steam, lets also recognise the skills of the people who quarry it, specify it, cut it, shape it, install it, restore, repair and clean it. 

Mark Priestman is a Partner at Priestman Associates LLP, a leading façade preservation project consultancy. From stonemasonry and heritage skills through to Site Supervision and Conservation Management, the partnership is trusted by the leading brands of the sector as an NVQ provider for experienced, upskiller and apprentice workers. 

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