Getting down-to-earth in the Dales

Money for training is a hurdle as increasingly over 25s look for a career in the country

Last year Deborah Cunningham had a dead-end job in a supermarket. Now she spends her days on the Yorkshire Dales, training in traditional countryside skills.

On a typical day she will be out in the national park, working alongside experienced staff, learning about woodland management and how to repair pathways, bridges and dry stone walls.

Deborah, 19, from Catterick, is taking a year-long apprenticeship with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust and Craven College, Skipton, leading to an NVQ level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in countryside management.

"It is unusual," she says. "I don't know many other girls who have a job quite like I have.

"I'm doing what I really want to do. It's such a lovely place to work. Not only that, you're in a different place every day. I really enjoy the job.

I'm into the whole idea of environmental conservation."

The apprenticeships were introduced to get more people to learn countryside management skills.

"Traditional country skills are dying off because there are no new people coming into them," says Chris Lodge, the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust's project officer.

"It's becoming more and more of a problem to find suitably qualified people to look after the countryside," he adds. A rural skills academy will be launched in North Yorkshire this summer. The academy is a collaboration between Askham Bryan and Craven colleges, York St John University and Lantra, the environmental and land-based industries sector skills council.

Nearly half the population in rural areas is over 45, according to a new study on learning and skills in rural communities by Professor Bill Jones of Niace, the national adult education body. Just 11 per cent is aged 18 to 29, compared to an average of 16 per cent elsewhere. Younger people tend to seek education and jobs in towns and cities, it says. Typical jobs for those who remain are low-skilled.

Numbers of environmental and land-based apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3 (A-level equivalent) have fallen, says Lantra.

The sector is attracting increasing numbers of over 25s, with many employers favouring career changes and adult entrants. But the lack of funding for older learners has become a barrier.

"We are finding that many of the people who want to come into our workforce, which includes environmental conservation, are coming as a second career," says Madge Moore, Lantra's England director. "Then the issue is, how do you look at skills development and where do those people go to access funding? They are not entitled through Train to Gain, and quite often have to pay for their own training and development."

Environmental conservation organisations are trying to address the skills shortage in partnership with land-based colleges, as in the case of the Yorkshire Dales scheme. But nationally training in countryside management is piecemeal, often relying on short-term funding, such as the European Social Fund, says Ms Moore.

"We are lobbying the Government to see how best they can increase the level of funding available for over 25s," she says. "If there are increasingly fewer young people coming through, shouldn't we be targeting that older age group?"

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