Building blocks of change: inspiring young people into carpentry

Graeme Binnie with pupils at Stoneyburn Primary School. Image credit: Robert Perry

By Graeme Binnie, a joinery lecturer at West Lothian College and founder of the West Lothian Woodworking Initiative

WOMEN working in construction recently hit an all-time high of 15.8%, highlighting the significant progress that is being made in the industry. However, considering that women make up nearly half of the global population, this statistic underscores and brings to light the stark reality that we still have a long way to go to achieve full inclusivity in the sector.

My passion for helping young people succeed in construction truly came to life when I had the opportunity to collaborate with local schools, teaching children the vital practical skills that they will need to thrive in the future. The lack of pathways for young girls to enter construction roles, especially in joinery, is an ongoing issue. And as a joiner by profession, I feel compelled to address the education gap.

I founded the West Lothian Woodworking Initiative in 2006 with the goal to ensure that everyone could build the skills they need to succeed in the industry, regardless of their gender. The programme has been progressing ever since, offering school children hands-on joinery and carpentry experience through engaging and interactive workshops.

By crafting their own figurines from recycled timber and experimenting with handheld tools, they get a taste of joinery life.

The initiative began with informal visits to my own children’s primary school and gradually gained interest from other schools in the area. In 2021, HCI Skills Gateway stepped in to fund the enterprise, offering the necessary support to evolve it into a comprehensive skills programme for young people throughout the city.

Winning the College Development Network’s (CDN) innovation award in 2023 for spearheading this initiative stands as one of my proudest accomplishments. To date, the project has engaged pupils from over 60 primary schools in West Lothian, with additional sessions delivered in local colleges, including West Lothian College, every year.

While it’s not suited to everyone, practical learning can be transformative for creative students who are passionate about hands-on work, or for those looking to find their career path. For many young girls, it may be the first time they have ever considered a career in joinery and carpentry as an option.

Last year, I received touching feedback from parents at a nearby school regarding their daughter, who had previously been quite withdrawn in class. Participating in the woodworking initiative marked a significant turning point for her as she eagerly shared her excitement about what was crafted. She now aspires to pursue a career as a joiner, and I look forward to seeing her future success bloom.

This story is just one example of the importance of recognising the individuality of every child. While they may not always take a more traditional or academic learning pathway, all children possess the potential to thrive when provided with the right avenues of opportunities.

Reflecting on the almost 20 years since its launch, the remarkable impact of the woodworking initiative on local children is incredible. It has received unwavering support and there are ambitious plans in the near future.

I am currently collaborating with schools and councils to expand the workshops nationally and provide training to upskill practitioners to independently deliver them. From this, numerous schools have expressed keen interest in integrating the programme into their day-to-day curriculum which marks a momentous milestone.

With the construction industry facing such a significant skills gap, now is the time for schools and industry professionals to collaborate in the drive for real, tangible change and to encourage and inspire the next generation of leaders. The talent is out there. They just need the right resources and tools to get started.