Learn by Doing

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Recently, I asked a friend to review something I had written on trades education. He was kind enough about his opinion of what I had written, but he did suggest that I take my blinders off. What I think he was saying was I needed to be careful not to focus so much on trades education in formal educational programs and remember that much, in fact most, education in the trades happens on the job, and quite often it's because people looking to add to their crew would prefer to train the new employees directly, rather than have to “de-educate” them or deal with a student who was taught in an environment that didn't prepare him or her for the challenges of a real, on-the-job environment.

The truth is that for that period of time when the trades became nearly obsolete and the recent period of realization that the trades played an important role in preservation, trades education took place entirely on the job, with apprentices learning from masters as the work was being done. If this hadn’t continued to occur, as it has from time immemorial, we might have actually lost the trades, which would have been a true cultural disaster.

In my mind this begs the question as to which form of education in the trades is more appropriate, or are both important in the development of a workforce that is so desperately needed to save our built heritage; or do we need something else entirely?

What’s important here is to realize that we can’t use the past to fix the future, not entirely anyhow. This is because so much has changed, is changing and will continue to change at a mind-numbing rate of speed. In order to build a system that educates enough people to create the workforce needed, we will need to have an organized approach to teaching them.

We cannot expect the individual companies and master tradesmen who are out there to organize that educational system, or even expect them to participate in it, for that matter. But it would be beneficial to everyone if they were expected to at least support it. If supporting it means nothing more than teaching apprentices in house that’s fine, but if we were to go a step further and look at the model created in Germany, we might consider actually asking shops that don’t have a training program to financially support the programs that do have hands-on trades education in their curriculum.

The Timber Framers Guild has invested a great deal of time and money developing an apprentice curriculum for teaching timber framing and the U.S. Department of Labor has endorsed it. These types of efforts point up the need for a standardized approach to raising young people to the trades. Whether that is done in a shop, a field school, a classroom or a lab isn’t what is important. What is important is that trades education, formal or informal, occurs and that young people realize it is available and that learning a trade is rewarding and fulfilling, both personally and financially.

Obviously, learning directly from a master will bring this message home most effectively, but we cannot limit the opportunity for young people to know what is available to them; and this has to happen before they leave high school. Whether it’s done by bringing the trades back into the public educational system or by repairing the mistake we made by downgrading tradespeople to second-class citizens or both; it must happen soon.