Is It Just Me, or Are We Falling Behind?

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Having just returned from the International Trades Education Symposium (ITES) in Lincoln, England, I’m still trying to comprehend just how progressive the trades education programs are in England, Denmark, Belgium and Europe in general. In this country we still seem to be hung up on whether or not we even need traditional trades, let alone how we should provide opportunities to learn them.

The symposium was organized by the Preservation Trades Network in partnership with the 1,000-year-old Lincoln Cathedral. The cathedral itself is a good example of integrating trades education with conservation. The Works Department, managed by Carol Heidschuster, who is the first woman to hold the position in a thousand years, is, in fact, a school. Young people with an interest in learning a traditional trade are hired in as apprentices and learn from the master craftspeople whose job it is to conserve the cathedral.

As conservation apprentices, they have the opportunity to learn stone carving, lead roofing, stained-glass restoration, timber framing and the other traditional trades employed in the cathedral’s construction. Fascinating to me was the fact that they actually have the freedom to be creative when replacing gargoyles, tracery or stained-glass imagery that has been weathered beyond recognition. Rather than being concerned with authenticity of design, they are given the opportunity to do what the original tradesmen and women did when they expressed their own creativity.

During the symposium, presenters from many different countries discussed programs that are supported by public, business and government funds that address head-on the growing shortage of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen. (In Europe and Great Britain trades are called crafts.) In Great Britain the National Heritage Training Group was established to document the existing numbers of craft workers in England, Scotland and Ireland and went on to publish reports that detail the unmet training needs.

In response, English Heritage has mounted a public campaign to make people aware of the problem and is working to create programs that will offer training opportunities. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment has mounted a program called Rebuilding Communities that is working to train young people in the trades in England and in storm-ravaged New Orleans. Unfortunately, there's no similar program funded by American dollars.

Presenter Anne-Francoise Cannella from Belgium heads the Training Center for Heritage Skills, the fundamental mission of which is “conservation and transmission of know-how in the field of the architectural heritage,” discussed a program at the Waloon Heritage Institute built around the “sensitization of young people to heritage skills.” In addition to training 4,000 young people in traditional crafts since 1999, the institute has established a master’s degree in preservation and restoration of cultural heritage to provide architects access to certification as “heritage experts.”

Andie Harris, of the North of England Civic Trust, talked about the trust's Heritage Skills Initiative, which pairs young people and those wishing to re-skill side-by-side with master stone masons, plasterers, traditional wooden window builders, blacksmiths and others in real conservation projects that give them a chance to learn by using traditional tools and materials. The program has been very successful at helping people learn whether or not they are cut out to take up a traditional craft.

Several presenters were there representing American colleges with a focus on trades education, including Bill Hole of the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA; Simeon Warren of the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, SC; Steve Hartley of Savannah Technical College and John C. Moore from West Kentucky Community & Technical College – all programs that survive primarily because they have a champion struggling against often incredible odds and lack of funding. On the other hand, programs in Great Britain and Europe are often supported by both government and industry.

You have all heard me say, probably once too often, that without support for the trades and trades education this country is placing its built heritage in jeopardy. It was more than refreshing to see not only genuine concern over the need to train craftspeople in traditional skills from the presenters at the Lincoln ITES, but to see many creative and progressive solutions being put into place to make it a reality. If they can do it there, we should be able to do it here as well.