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15 May 2019

Honing skills for the future

A group of people work in a cave, lit with lamps. A hole has been dug in the floor, and one person sits on a large rock in the hole.
Volunteer programmes allow individuals to learn about the valuable archaeology skills involved in unearthing our past.
The Historic Environment Skills Investment Plan (SIP) builds upon many earlier reports but looks beyond the conventional traditional skills shortages and signposts the wide and varied needs that play a part in sustaining our historic environment.

A sector under threat

Skills shortages pose many challenges for the historic environment. Projects can often be affected by a lack of local knowledge, over-committed contractors, or a requirement to use materials that have seasonal windows for success, such as lime mortars. Modern building technologies are being taught according to what new technology can offer in terms of economic efficiency. In addition, just like many others, the heritage sector is having to respond to a changing workforce. People often gravitate to jobs where pay is higher and less complex in nature, not a description used for our sector!

At the same time, in light of a highly competitive tourism sector, we expect more of our places, in providing new experiences, increased commercial opportunities, and easing of complex operational processes. We strive to continue to meet the needs of our traditional visitors as well as attract new audiences.

A complex environment

The historic environment sector is diverse and requires a wide range of skills to support it. Employment types include full-time and part-time workers, freelancers, researchers and volunteers. It’s conservatively estimated that in Scotland the sector supports 20,000 FTE and 17,000 volunteers, which has grown at a rate of 20% since 2014. It’s predicted that demand for employment will increase, particularly with the estimated growth in tourism, improvement of access to the historic environment, enhanced visitor experiences and the development of an increased commercial focus in heritage organisations.

The launch of a plan

The Historic Environment SIP is a Scottish Government-supported report, produced by a cross-section of specialists as part of the Our Place in Time strategy. It has found that a lack of skills is presenting the sector with a real threat. This will have a potentially negative impact on our ability to effectively manage, protect and conserve our historic environment. The Scottish Government recognises the importance of the historic environment as an integral part of our economy and society, and has taken the step to develop a standalone SIP that recognises the unique needs of the sector and addresses these with a coordinated action plan.

The review found that the historic environment sector’s future success will require raising awareness of traditional craft skills, maintaining current specialist skills, promoting professional skills sets, and offering more vocational training and practices in order to deal with new challenges. The report points to skills shortages in the areas of heritage gardening, surveying and plastering, and identified future need in areas such as digital, customer service, business & enterprise and leadership & management.

The review also assessed the current provision of education and training from apprenticeships, college and university and vocational. It found that there were many varied routes into the sector, but noted that there needed to be greater promotion of vocational routes, better training and CPD, and more opportunities for work placements and internships.

The place for skills in the Trust

We’re facing many challenges in sourcing the correct skills in order to support our historic places. It’s not just finding a stonemason and roofer to undertake repairs on a building, or the work of a gardener who understands the rhythm of seasons and the challenges of changing climate. It’s also about ensuring  good decision making, and that people have the necessary balance of business acumen and heritage empathy. The need for good decision making is critical for an organisation that looks after some of the most valued cultural assets in the country. The consequences of a wrong decision can prove disastrous for our heritage and, in some instances, leave a legacy for all the wrong reasons. 

The Trust has had the foresight to address some of these issues for many years. For almost 30 years, the stonemasonry workshop at Culzean Castle has supported apprentices in a different way from mainstream college, providing them with the knowledge and skills to address masonry defects in a traditionally built building. We’ve also continued to innovate with the development of the adult apprentice route, recognising the shortfalls of conventional training. These apprentices have influenced their new employers in their approaches to stone repairs, and many have gone on to establish successful businesses, all built from the foundation of our Conservation Principles.

A lady stands amid many rose bushes, with pink and white flowers. She leans forward and holds the stem of one rose.
We’re growing the next generation of gardeners through our new apprenticeship schemes.

In a similar way, we’ve been training skilled professional gardeners for nearly 60 years at Threave Garden, at our School of Heritage Gardening. Its alumni of c400 includes many who’ve gone on to work in public and private heritage gardens and have become leading horticulturalists in Scotland and beyond. In 2018 we launched a brand new Garden Apprenticeship, based on the Modern Apprenticeship Level 2 in Horticulture, to encourage more new and young entrants into this rewarding profession. The first year has been a real success, and we’ll soon be starting to look for applicants for our 2019 intake.

A lady kneels beside a sofa on a decorative carpet. She is holding a tape measure against a side table.
We’ve been providing opportunities for people development through our Project Reveal programme.

More broadly, the Trust continues to invest in Leadership Development across the organisation, ensuring our future leaders have the necessary skills for the heritage environment. The aim of these programmes – to build managerial and leadership skills rather than technical skills – reflects the need for our leaders to be able to manage effectively in an increasingly fast-paced and complex world.

The way people want to learn at work is also changing, and so we’re introducing a new platform of digital learning for our managers in 2019, providing opportunities for on-going learning that can be accessed when it’s needed.

Volunteer workforce

The important role that volunteers play as part of the overall workforce was noted by Brett Welch, the National Trust for Scotland’s Head of Organisational Development. He says: ‘Our place as a founding member of the Historic Volunteer Organisers Scotland (HVOS) group, bringing together groups and formalising volunteer management, will contribute greatly to the outcomes of the Plan - whose intention is to expand the volunteer network and ultimately use volunteering as a recruitment tool.’

Three ladies hold a green omega-shaped sign in front of a bright pink wall.
Our successful SVQ pilot at Culloden, the Georgian House and the Tenement House is providing opportunities to give formal SQA qualifications in volunteering.

Volunteering is often seen as a stepping stone into employment in the heritage sector. In a new initiative for the Trust, we will become an assessment centre for SVQ programmes in volunteering, part of a funding partnership with Museums Galleries Scotland. This will allow us to run specific SVQ programmes to give volunteers certification for their work. Our pilot programmes, in three locations across the country, are already showing amazing results – helping long-serving volunteers to learn new skills, as well as working with people at the start of their careers who would not have normally engaged with heritage.

A large group of volunteers stand together holding a Trust sign and an Investing in Volunteers sign.
The role of volunteers in the historic environment sector has grown by 20% since 2014.

Our volunteers also engage in hands-on training at our places, from collections care to drystane dyking. Our highly successful programme of working holidays – we run around 90 each year – allows participants to learn practical skills whilst contributing directly to heritage conservation. These skills include archaeology, mountain footpath repair, habitat management, and designed landscape/garden maintenance.

A digital model of the Hill House, showing a heat map
Demonstrating the part that digital technology skills can play in heritage management is a vital part of our Hill House repairs strategy.

Attracting new talent

The review noted that the heritage sector needs to become more attractive to younger generations, in order to widen the talent pool and help address inequality. The sector should also build more vocational learning to support new entrants, stop the decline in the education and the training provision of specialist skills, upskill the existing workforce to meet employer demand, and identify qualifications and accreditation for volunteers to recognise career progression.

In summary, three broad priority action areas have been identified:

  • Engaging the wider sector in skills and innovation
  • Attracting future talent and improving access
  • Workforce development and ensuring the implementation of a detailed action plan
Bryan Dickson stands in front of a mill, holding an omega-shaped Trust sign.
Bryan Dickson, Head of Buildings Conservation

What does this mean for the Trust?

Bryan Dickson, the Trust’s Head of Buildings Conservation, contributed to the development of the SIP. He said: ‘We should treat our skills pool as preciously as we treat our most valued buildings - after all there is little point in looking after the physical object if we are not looking after the skills we require to do that. Our duty to hand our assets onto the next generation requires the continuation of many traditional skills and the adaptation of the workforce to be fit for the future. This coordinated action plan provides a welcomed focus on the many and complex issues that surround the protection and management of our built environment and we look forward to playing our part in helping the ambition laid out in the plan that will benefit our heritage long into the future.’ 

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