When I first got into the trades more than 35 years ago, I found that being a carpenter was both enjoyable and lonely. It seemed like you had to go to the local lumberyard to find people who spoke your language and actually wanted to hear what you had to say. Even my family wasn’t all that interested; after all, I had left the family tradition of working for General Motors, and I wasn’t even making much use of what I had learned in engineering school as far as anyone could tell. But somewhere along the line I realized that sitting at a drafting board or troubleshooting problems on a production line didn’t fulfill me.
When I was younger, I used to really enjoy helping my dad or grandpa with carpentry projects and vividly remember working with my dad when he decided he was going to build a wooden bridge across the French Creek to get to our property on the other side. So when I started to lose my enthusiasm for engineering, I naturally drifted toward carpentry projects. I wasn’t exactly making a killing, but I was happier. The one thing that bugged me, though, was how differently people acted around me when I was wearing my engineer’s hat (not the one with little stripes on it) compared to when I had my carpenter’s ballcap on.
Serendipity has always been good to me, and one day a friend who was renting a room from me suggested I come to work with him and interview for a job as plant engineer of the small electronics plant. I got the job and once again noticed the difference. As I continued to transition to general contractor and then timber framer I continued to sense this bipolar reaction people seemed to have towards me, and it wasn’t until I began working on high-profile timber framing projects as a “master” of my trade did I begin to realize the source of the problem. As an engineer, I had a higher status in the professional world because I was more “well educated” than they assumed I was as a carpenter. Once I had reached the level of master timber framer, I again was considered well educated.
Oddly enough, this process of stratification by education actually created a situation that automatically placed the trades on the low end of the scale because our educational system had morphed into a sorting program where the “smart” kids were directed toward professions like doctor, lawyer or architect and the “less gifted” kids were directed towards “vocational” programs where you could learn a trade. In my last blog we discussed the fact that during the 20th century we virtually eliminated trades education in the public school system and replaced it with voc-ed programs that actually separated the kids by intellectual level (as determined by the system). How had we in little more than a century completely reversed the cultural programming that placed tradespeople at the high end of the scale?
We can go into that another time, but for now let’s talk about the negative effects of this debacle and where we are today.
Every good tradesperson I know is very intelligent, particularly those who challenge themselves with working on preservation projects. Unfortunately, the value they can bring to assessment work and project planning has largely been overlooked until recently due to the artificial stratification induced by the public education system. The growth of the preservation market and the creation of organizations that have created networking opportunities for tradespeople and professionals are beginning to turn the corner, and tradespeople are being asked to join design teams with architects, engineers and historic property owners to help develop specifications for historic preservation projects. The realization that tradespeople are both willing to contribute and are well educated in their field has finally begun to show the value in networking and building preservation partnerships.
Let’s hope this trend continues, and we manage to figure out a way to undo the damage done by devaluation of the trades and return them to the place and status they deserve in preservation work and in our culture again.