Over the last 20 years, Australia has experienced unprecedented growth in the building and construction industry. Driven by the biggest housing boom in a generation, new builds have been going up all over the country. Demand for Bricklayers, Tilers, Stonemasons and Plasterers all exceeded the labour market. As a result, these trades have all been included in the Australia Skilled Occupation List for Skilled Immigration for the last decade. That means that workers in these areas are being sought from overseas to meet the labour shortage.

Hidden within this skills shortage is the critical issue of heritage trade specialists. If you look at the number of qualified tradespeople who are working in specialist areas, the numbers have been dropping. Qualified tradespeople working in the heritage field are also older than workers in the general building & construction industry.

The vocational education sector works off government & industry-endorsed training packages. These are ‘rule books’ covering the exact detail of what apprentices are trained. Part of the decline in heritage trade skills can be traced back to the lack of heritage-related content in training packages. In the Certificate III in Brick & Blocklaying training package, there has been no inclusion of training around the types of mortars to use on heritage structures for the last 15 years at least. Yet in South Australia, a bricklayer can add stonemasonry to their contractors’ license by providing evidence of having worked with stone on four projects.

Considering that most of the countries building stock is older than 50 years, there will continue to be a shortage of qualified people to maintain these structures. The risks of having unqualified workers undertaking work on existing structures is significant. In some townships like Port Fairy there is evidence of considerable damage done to buildings by people using the wrong materials and causing more damage to the structures they have been hired to repair.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) in South Australia have long been working at promoting heritage training by funding short courses. There are similar examples in Tasmania and Victoria. While this meets some of the need, it does not provide a solution to the issue. More must be done to formalise training so a level of quality control can be in place to ensure consistent results that are supported by the industry.