The Merry Month: A stone fellowship?

Robert Merry

Robert Merry, MCIOB, is an independent Stone Consultant. He ran his own stone company for 17 years before becoming first an independent project manager and now a consultant. He is also an expert witness in disputes regarding stone and stone contracts. 0207 502 6353 / 07771 997621. robertmerry@ 

Robert Merry thinks it is about time the interiors section of the stone industry started formally recognising the skills of its workforce with qualifications... and why not a Fellowship?

We have a dilemma in some parts of the stone industry. Well, in interiors, to be frank. How do we recognise the skills we have taught our staff and how do we credit their achievements? In the office, the factory and as installers.

Certainly interior stone installation requires a unique set of skills. We would not expect a traditional hand-set mason to work with 20mm stone in a bathroom. The same is true in reverse.

Though there are, of course, many exceptions to this rule and we have all employed fixers who profess to being able to fix anything and everything. They are often caught with their proverbial trousers down at some point. Not a pleasant image – and an expensive one, too.

Fabricator workshops are home to digitized machinery requiring skilled and trained operatives. Forklift operators have specialist knowledge of how to load and unload slabs and move them around the workshop safely. Multi-access CNC technicians. Sophisticated rendering of photography – the art of rendering itself and production of digitized cutting sheets for the automated machinery. And then we have the sawyers and finishers and there is still no replacement for hands-on operatives cutting and polishing.

The link between site and factory – the templater (or, more properly named the site surveyor) handling sophisticated digital equipment and a laptop from which to ping the files to the factory.

It is a varied workforce whose skills are difficult to formally recognise in any collective qualification. Each requires a different set of skills.

Suppliers offer training for users, but rarely does the training extend to understanding the material worked, its limitations, its strengths and weaknesses, how to handle it and how to recognise when limitations have been reached.

Office workers also have their own skill set. Hopefully the days of coping with a light covering of dust on the desk and curling paperwork from the damp conditions, which I experienced in the railway arch we occupied for neigh on 17 years, are long gone.

The language of our trade is complicated at first, contractual obligations and risks vary, depending on the customer – architect, designer, contractor or public. Recognising and remembering the names of the stones and the geological differences between them is a subject in itself.

An obvious umbrella under which all skills shelter in some shape or form is health & safety. A legal requirement, certainly, but how do we recognise and credit the achievements of the individuals and their skills?

Surely we can produce a national stone standard for the interior stone industry to encompass all aspects of these diverse roles, to give us a set of qualifications respected and recognised within and beyond the industry?

In some cases, these already exist but need adaptation or refocusing on stone in interiors.

The National Occupational Standards, on which many stone masonry college courses are based, have an excellent structure with an interiors stone installer module as an option.

So why has the interiors industry been so reluctant to recognise qualifications that are under their very noses?

Perhaps companies don’t know about it? Perhaps there are misconceptions about the system and what it provides? Perhaps a uniting body like the Stone Federation or the Worktop Fabricators Federation (WFF) can galvanise our section of the industry and move the agenda forward.

The Stone Industry Professional Practice NVQ, developed by the Stone Federation and Priestman Associates, has been running for several years and is a case in point. If you haven’t heard about it, contact Mark Priestman. It’s excellent in its wide coverage of the stone industry, including estimating, quarrying, architecture, contracting and site visits. It takes up to two years to complete.

Is that the issue? The industry wants a quick fix? “How do I get operatives on site tomorrow? Do they really need a CSCS card?”  A labourer’s CSCS is only for labourers and cannot be renewed. Skilled worker cards, which apply to installers, are available to those with NVQ or SVQ level 2 qualifications, or if you have registered on a course you can obtain a one-year temporary card. There is no quick fix.

This is our challenge. Not to start again, but to take what we already have and mould it into a suite of qualifications for the interiors side of the stone industry that are relevant and recognised by our customers and the wider construction world. That will enable trained operatives to access CSCS cards and embed standards in interiors that will be long lasting and add value.

And what about a ‘Fellowship’ of the stone industry – a recognition of service and excellence, similar to other industry bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Builders, for one? An accreditation process where industry leaders and long serving individuals who have set the highest standards are rewarded with a Fellowship.

Now that is something to aim for.