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Yorkshire Dales apprentices: a good start but where to now?
Friday, 31 January, 2003

Country columnist John Sheard welcomes plans to train apprentices in rural skills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and hopes that others will take up the campaign

SOME years ago, after buying a new house, I negotiated with my farmer neighbour to buy a strip of his field so that I could enlarge my garden. Part of the existing plot was already surrounded by dry-stone walls so I wanted the new plot to match.

Dry stone walling
That plan was hurriedly abandoned when, after several further weeks of protracted negotiation, I received a quote from a waller – and nearly died of shock. His quote, had I been able to afford it, was almost a quarter of that for the whole house, for perhaps 40 yards of wall. We chose a car and new carpets instead!

The reason for this was, in that particularly bleak part of the Pennines, dry-stone wallers were scarcer than penguins in a desert. My man, although a nice chap and highly skilled, knew his scarcity value – and could charge accordingly.

This week, the Yorkshire Dales National Park announced that it was about to launch a new apprenticeship scheme to train young people in countryside crafts like walling, hedge-laying, land management and the like – all the skills, in fact, that farmers have traditionally handed down to their sons for generations.

It is a very good idea but, sadly, it will be restricted to only four youngsters and part-funded by non-national park bodies (see News, yesterday). If the figure were 400, or better still 4,000, I would be jumping for joy because rural unemployment is growing at a huge rate as agriculture declines.

The irony here is that there are many serious minded country folk who fear for the future of everyone living in the Dales because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a craftsman of any sort to carry out simple but essential household repairs.

I am not talking country crafts here but down-to-earth tradesmen like plumbers or electricians. They have been driven out of the countryside by rocketing house prices and are in such demand in the towns that few can be bothered to make trips into the countryside – except for very high fees.

Only a few months ago, a gas fitter quoted me £50 plus VAT for connecting a new cooker, a job which took 15 minutes including safety checks. In town, with short distances between jobs, that guy can earn £200-plus a day with ease – and that’s £50,000 a year without weekend work!

The entire country is crying out for more skilled tradesmen. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor wants more. There are stories of men quitting jobs in the City of London to re-train with blowlamp and pliers.

What we need in the countryside is teachers and further education lecturers who will point out to young people that they don’t have to leave their villages to work in a call centre somewhere, chained to a desk and an ear-piece for eight hours a day.

They could – and should – be making a good living and remaining in their own communities where many have family ties going back generations. And with the fees they can now charge, they could even afford to buy a small cottage!

Trouble is, many educators have a dyed-in-the-wool prejudice against steering young people into so-called “manual work.” One very well qualified teacher friend of mind, a great guy in every other way, regularly states that it is not his job to turn out “factory fodder.”

Well, for £50,000 a year, I would happily tour the Dales in my little van, fixing things here and there for a grateful public. I’d be my own boss, too. Let’s hope we hear of more apprenticeship schemes soon!

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