The Voice of the Tradesperson

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Quite some time ago, in my first blog for Traditional Building, I wrote about the formation of PTN as a special task force of APT. There was, at that time, a realization that there needed to be an effort to provide a voice for the trades. In many ways, it was more like realizing the need to return a voice to the trades. After attending the parallel APT/PTN conferences in Charleston, SC, a few weeks ago, I feel it is an appropriate time to return to that topic.

Ron Staley (left), of The Christman Company, a sponsor of the cannon carriage workshop, and David Woodcock (right), former president of APT, join me in appreciating the workmanship of the students.

Ron Staley (left), of The Christman Company, a sponsor of the cannon carriage workshop, and David Woodcock (right), former president of APT, join me in appreciating the workmanship of the students.

The conferences were very well attended, with over 700 people gathering to celebrate the existence of a large and growing community of people focused on the conservation of the built environment. Several generations of professionals and tradespeople were in attendance, including students from the local trades and architectural schools, young apprentices of the trades and beginning architects and engineers venturing into the world of conservation, as well as many of us who have been in our respective fields long enough to see some very real changes taking place in the work place and in the field.

Charleston was an excellent location for this gathering, which represented the first formal meeting of APT and PTN in 15 years. The historic Marion Hotel provided space for the presentations, while the park that is Marion Square, adjacent to the hotel, was an excellent place to set up hands-on demonstrations. PTN collaborated with the American College of the Building Arts and Savannah Technical Collegeto to hold a workshop where students worked on reproducing two cannon carriages for replica Revolutionary War cannons at Fort Sumter National Park.

For me, joined by Laura Saeger and Lisa Sasser as instructors in the workshop, it was a perfect opportunity to communicate with interested conference attendees about traditional trades. The carriages were quite complex and required pulling several old planes and spokeshaves out of my collection. Truing up the blades and tuning the large hollowing planes proved to be of real interest to a lot of folks who visited the workshop, but watching the students using the 150-year-old tools was much more interesting to everyone, including me.

While we were there, working with the students in the shade of the trees, I had an opportunity to realize just how much things really have changed in 15 years. Within the conservation community, the concept of “preservation trades” (which I have dubbed an elitist term used to separate tradespeople into specialized fields) has largely been replaced with the term “traditional trades.” The value of including tradespeople in every phase of conservation projects is becoming more accepted as a beneficial collaboration. At the same time, the stigma surrounding the trades, which was part of our culture a generation ago, has been evaporating almost as fast as the melting Arctic ice sheets.

Today, young people who are given the opportunity to learn a trade are realizing just how rewarding it is to actually make something, and the educational opportunities available to them to learn how are increasing steadily. But the reality is when they matriculate, they may not be able to find meaningful employment in their chosen trade. The primary reason for this is that some parts of our culture have yet to find a place for trades.

Although the voice of the tradesperson is being heard more clearly by architects, engineers, historic property owners, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, it has yet to be heard in the world of corporate contracting and the bidding process that employs its workforce. As my friend Ken Follett so eloquently states, “It’s not that the large general contractors don’t know there are skilled tradespeople out there, it's just that they aren’t interested in paying for their qualifications or educating their own workforce to have them.”

It’s clear that much more work is needed to begin to create a world where the historic structures themselves are treated with enough respect that only people who are qualified to maintain them work on them. The process, as it currently exists, largely precludes this from happening. In order for a large company to survive, it has to be willing to accept being the “low bidder” in most cases. In order to do this, it also has to be bonded and insured. In order for these things to all work at once, most companies tend to keep the work in house, doing everything with their own employees who are paid as little as they are willing to accept.

In essence, we are punishing young people who have an interest in learning a trade, not because they will be considered lower-class citizens, as they once would have been, but because the companies getting the large conservation jobs aren’t interested in paying them for their skills. Unfortunately for our historic buildings, the result is sub-standard work compared with how the same work would have been done by someone with a quality education in a traditional trade. Unless something is done to change how this process works, our historic buildings and the people with skills in the traditional trades who built them will suffer.

There is some work being done to develop standards and qualifications for traditional tradespeople, as well as changes in the bidding process to exclude workers without those qualifications. If these initiatives succeed, it’s quite possible we will begin to see a cultural shift to a world where people have a better understanding of how important the traditional trades were in the building of our cultural heritage and how important they are in saving it. Then, and only then, will the voice of the trades have its rightful place again in our society.