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So Now What?

Training tradesmen

Having received some really good comments on my last blog, I have decided to stay on the same tack for the time being. We have been talking about the failure, for the most part, of today’s educational system(s) in addressing the continuing demand for qualified tradespeople. As a point of reference I have also pointed out that, at least as far as public education is concerned, the failure is our own, not the school system. How can we cast blame on anything for failing to do what it was never designed to do in the first place?

Willa serves a crab boil for the instructors at the workshop at Savannah Technical College. One of the perks for tradespeople teaching!

Willa serves a crab boil for the instructors at the workshop at Savannah Technical College. One of the perks for tradespeople teaching!

I have been spending a lot of time ruminating about this quandary, as you might imagine, and I have come upon an interesting (to me) hypothesis: Is the reason we have such a hard time seeing the solution based on the fact that we are it? Aren’t most of us already aware that passing down knowledge requires participation? Have we been ignoring our own responsibility because we spend almost no time at all being aware of its existence?

I have talked before about how much I enjoy being involved in workshops that have been organized by the Timber Framers Guild or the Preservation Trades Network. I have also received great pleasure from instructing at institutions like Palomar College and Savannah Technical College, but when I think about why I am so rewarded it clearly has a great deal to do with fulfilling my mandate to pass along what I have learned.

The student becomes the master

What is important to realize here is that when a student becomes aware that they are being empowered to do something they never thought they would, or even could do, at that moment a bond forms between the instructor and the student. That bond is not dependent on a teaching certificate, or degree or tenure. It does not require the instructor to be educated in educating. It simply requires the person who holds the knowledge to freely give it to the person who desires it.

This simple elegant process is deeply embedded in human culture all over the planet. The opportunity to engage in the process may seem less apparent in today’s educational environment, but it does require someone who has the knowledge, and someone who desires it to interact in order for it to take place at all. And, knowing that learning the trades is an experiential process means that, in its purest form, it requires a tradesperson to be the instructor, plain and simple.

I have spent a great deal of time talking with Steve Hartley, Director of the new Center for Traditional Craft and Department Head of Historic Preservation at Savannah Technical College, where the next International Trades Education Symposium will take place May 14-16, 2015, about the topic of process in traditional trades education. Steve has, for several years, included a “Visiting Artisan” program in his curriculum. Beginning in 2015 he is expanding that to feature “Artists in Residence.” The program will actually bring in qualified tradespeople to teach for extended periods at the college.

I think Steve’s idea is a solid step in the right direction. Creating any environment where qualified tradespeople are paid as instructors is an important step in getting from where we are to where we need to be. What I find interesting is how challenging it is for Steve to get qualified trades instructors to set aside large chunks of time to teach. The reality is we need a paradigm shift to take place in order to make this whole concept begin to function as part of the solution to the trades education problem. We need to learn how to do something old again. This is not a new idea; it’s a long needed revival.

Obviously spouting off ideas about how to make this all happen, provided we want it to happen in the first place, would be pretty pointless at this juncture. We are definitely just stepping into the trial-and-error period of development, but I have taken it upon myself to start getting some feedback from the people I know best, tradespeople, and I have been getting some interesting answers.

Learning by example

I have two subcontractors working in my shop currently, one a relatively young (compared to me) carpenter and one a more well-worn in (like me) carpenter who has been specializing in timber framing for many years. I asked the young carpenter Andrew what he thought of having tradespeople as instructors in public and private education and he reminded me the reason he pursued working with me was to try to learn from me some of what I know. He knows he can’t learn it in college, but if it were possible to learn from tradespeople in college, he probably would have stayed in school longer.

When I asked Arvel, the carpenter closer to my age, what he thought of this idea, he said it sounded like a great idea, but immediately realized the difficulties. After a little after-dinner conversation over barley pop and wine, we both began to realize just how attractive a retirement option professionally teaching the trades would be. If situations were to exist where we could actually teach in an environment where we didn’t have to employ our students, run the business of educating them or provide them with tools, we both agreed it would be something we would strongly consider.

It’s time we stopped pointing fingers and casting blame for the lack of trades education opportunities. We have to make them happen. Students want to learn and the demand for educated tradespeople is growing. If we tie that demand to the need for qualified tradespeople as paid instructors, everybody wins. There are a lot of educational programs out there trying to crack this nut, but they need the support of industry, and one simple way to make that happen is to build programs that provide tradespeople as teachers.

We may never see the day again where apprentices learn under the watchful hands of the master, as in years gone by, but we can create a day when students who want to learn are taught what the trades are, can see the opportunities that exist to learn them and do so under the watchful hands of the qualified men and women that make up today’s trades. When we accomplish that, we will be providing as great an opportunity to the tradespeople as their students.

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