Meet three Victorians keeping age-old jobs alive

Living Well | Words: Krysia Bonkowski | Photos: Julian Kingma | Posted on 27 March 2019

Traditional professions that survive in the desk-job age.

Behind the glass, the beehive is abuzz. Returning worker bees communicate the whereabouts of pollen to the next wave with a waggling ‘dance’, while others tend honeycomb or hidden pupae. When most people think of an office, they picture morning meetings and humming computers. But, for Benedict Hughes, this verdant garden with chooks scratching around his ankles is his office. 

chimney sweep david blythe on house roof in black clothes and hat, and sooty face

”You never know what you’re going to get,” says David Smythe of his chimney-sweeping career. 


 

The apiarist, known as the Practical Beekeeper, tends 100-plus hives across northern Melbourne, as well as educating primary schoolers through to TAFE students at Melbourne Polytechnic on the joys of bees. The glass-sided hive is a teaching aid at Brunswick’s CERES community park, home of enthusiast club the Bee Group and one of Benedict’s hive sites. While his chosen career might be unusual – he estimates only a handful of full-time beekeepers operate in Melbourne – it is also important. Many of the plants that sustain us rely on the humble honeybee, and beekeepers’ specialties range from honey collection to queen cultivation, swarm relocation, crop pollination and more. 

Benedict’s interest was piqued when he established a hive to pollinate a struggling pumpkin vine. “I didn’t set out to be a beekeeper, I did it purely for my gardening,” he says. “But one hive become two, two became five, and all of a sudden you’ve got a hundred.” A job redundancy four years ago gave  
him the chance to take his hobby full time. “I’m so lucky because it is such a passion; it’s not really work,” he says. “So even though I work every day, I get to be outside, I get to be with nature, I get to share my love and passion for bees, and, of course, make a bit of honey.” 

While the popularity of fireplaces ebbs and flows, he finds the nostalgia of a crackling fire is timeless.

David Blythe was not so much drawn to his trade as born into it. The second-generation chimney sweep now helms the business his father Peter started, but he has helped out since he was five years old. “As a kid I always loved going out with Dad,” he says. “It was always so exciting and I always thought I would love to do something with such diversity as a career.” 

His father’s only condition was that David needed a qualification to fall back on if needed. So David qualified as a mechanic, but has been running Blythe’s Clean Sweep solo for several years. He tackles commercial and private chimneys of all shapes and conditions, so no two jobs are the same. “You never know what you’re going to get,” he says. His father once came face-to-face with a skeleton in a chimney at a university, courtesy of prankster med students. 

David does face incredulity when people discover he’s a chimney sweep, but finds there’s still a call for expertise with something so potentially hazardous as fire. “When you think about the cost of buying a house, for the sake of a couple of hundred dollars’ difference from doing it yourself to getting a professional – you can’t really put a price on that,” he says. 

While the popularity of fireplaces ebbs and flows, he finds the nostalgia of a crackling fire is timeless. “There are a lot of younger couples starting a family who have memories of going to grandma’s house, having toasted marshmallows, and having that beautiful aesthetic that the fire provides.” 

beekeeper benedict hughes in full protective gear with hive and smoker

Benedict Hughes practises and teaches the art of beekeeping. 


arborist amanda woodhams in climbing gear suspended from a tree branch

Arborist Amanda Woodhams gets airborne. 


chimney sweep david blythe in black clothes and hat, and sooty face

Second-generation chimney sweep David Blythe. 


Although the job market seems to offer new ‘it’ careers daily, unusual trades such as David’s quietly endure. As national higher education debt nudges $54 billion and stories of the over-qualified and under-employed proliferate, learning a trade can open up a life-long career. But since 2014, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research has recorded a steady decrease in apprentice and trainee commencements in Victoria. 

Aiming to bolster vocational training, ‘Rebuilding TAFE’ was a key campaign promise of the Andrews state government, which has made 50 priority courses free to applicable students since January and committed $220 million to improving campuses. This will make education more accessible for more people and produce economic benefits. 

A KPMG Australia study attributed a $2.9 billion contribution to Victoria’s gross state product in 2016-17 directly to TAFE, estimating that every dollar spent by TAFEs and dual-sector universities represented $2.19 added value to the economy. 

Learning a trade helped 2018 Victorian Trainee of the Year Amanda Woodhams transform her passion into a career. Amanda was a gardener, until an arborist she worked for one summer started to teach her tree climbing as a “treat”. 

I love working outdoors and the variety in my work that comes with the change in seasons.

“The moment I was halfway up that first pine tree I thought ‘Oh, of course, why would I spend my life working with plants and leave myself out of climbing the trees?’,” she says. 

Within six months she had begun an apprenticeship, starting with a Certificate III in Arboriculture from Melbourne Polytechnic. “Climbing 10 metres up a tree and learning how to balance seven metres out on the end of a branch with a chainsaw clipped to your harness is definitely a skill set that’s best built under the guidance of an experienced teacher,” Amanda says. 

Many of her peers specialise in climbing and maintaining trees through pruning and cabling, which demands intense physicality, as showcased by tree-climbing competitions such as ‘Branched Out’ run by Red Bull and Arboriculture Australia. 

Consulting arborists focus more on assessment, applying an encyclopaedic knowledge of tree species, pests and diseases to advise on management and planning. As she pursues a diploma and works towards consultancy, Amanda spends her days tending to Langwarrin’s bucolic Cruden Farm, where native and imported plantings provide year-round splendour. 

“I love working outdoors and the variety in my work that comes with the change in seasons,” Amanda says. And as far as an office goes, that’s hard to beat.


Lost trades staging a comeback

As consumers seek respite from the mass-produced, these ‘lost’ trades are re-emerging:  

  • Woodworking 
    The makers’ movement and its appreciation for the handmade have lent hipster cred to the ancient crafts of carpentry and woodworking.  
  • Bladesmithing 
    Aspirational home cooks are helping drive demand for traditional chef’s implements such as hand-forged knives.
  • Leatherwork 
    As sustainable fashion gains momentum, consumers are investing in the bespoke wares of shoemakers, cordwainers and leather specialists.

Free TAFE courses

The state government’s Free TAFE for Priority Courses program covers tuition fees for 50 courses for eligible students.  
They include:

  • Pre-apprenticeship courses in baking, horticulture, printing and graphic arts, furniture making and electrotechnology.
  • Non-apprenticeship courses in dental assisting, cyber security, building and construction, hospitality, youth work and tourism.

Find the full list at:  
vic.gov.au/freetafe