The image of the “vanishing tradesperson” in America is one that is far too well known and accepted as true, but the real truth is that trades education is what vanished. As a high school student growing up in the Midwest, I was lucky enough to have “shop” as one of my courses. Those of you doing the math have probably figured out that means I was born in the first half of the 20th century. Since that time I’ve watched as town after town closed the doors on their shops and auctioned off all of the tools and equipment. Various reasons were given, but my opinion is that in the post-Henry Ford world of unionized factories and mass manufactured everything, the demand for skilled tradespeople diminished significantly.
This loss of available education combined with the stigma that was attached to being anything less than a doctor or lawyer meant the loss of nearly an entire generation of skilled tradespeople entering the workforce. This really didn’t create a significant problem as building construction itself had become manufacturing oriented. If someone needed training to perform a specific building task, it was provided by the manufacturers of the products involved and what used to be known as tradesmen were replaced with installers and construction workers. This transition wasn’t recognized as any kind of problem; rather it was seen as a sign of progress in a modern world where new and improved was far more desirable than old and traditional.
The realization that something had gone wrong was brought about by the historic preservation movement. Unlike new construction, preservation required problem solving. Dealing with the maintenance issues created by the aging of our built environment involved more than assembling all of the manufactured parts that make up new buildings. Instead, solutions had to be found that could deal with rotted wood, deteriorated mortar or damaged slate roofs. As you might expect with our modern approach to everything else, at the outset it was assumed that solving these problems using modern materials like epoxy and Portland cement applied by modern construction workers would be an appropriate approach. After all, we had plenty of both so why not use them?
Reinventing the wheel
It didn’t take long to realize that modern solutions to preservation problems were only appropriate in certain scenarios and that in most situations the process actually caused more damage, like creating failing brick facades due to the Portland cement mortar being harder than the brick itself. Finding sources for traditional materials became an important part of the preservation industry, but finding tradespeople who understood how to use them would prove a very real problem. Progress, it turns out, had left us with too few real tradespeople, and the dismantling of the trades education system meant we had no way to solve the problem quickly. Even if we could get young people interested in the trades, the programs needed to teach them the skills didn’t exist. Worse yet, the few skilled tradespeople who were out there were rapidly retiring from years in the trades and wouldn’t be around to take on apprentices.
The last 25 years have seen a number of important occurrences that are beginning to make a difference in the availability of quality skilled tradespeople. The formation of organizations like the Timber Framers Guild, the Preservation Trades Network and the Slate Roofing Contractors Association has created resources and educational programs for tradespeople and professionals involved in preservation. Certificate and graduate programs like Belmont Technical College, the American College of the Building Arts, the College of the Redwoods and Colorado Mountain College are providing hands-on trades education and increasing the resource of young trades professionals, but the demand still greatly exceeds the supply; and more programs are needed, not just at the college level, but K-12 as well.
Tradespeople with knowledge in the traditional trades are a crucial component of the preservation movement in America and worldwide. In order for those individuals to be available, we need to rebuild the world we so carefully deconstructed so that once again, both in schools and in the workplace, there will be a much needed place for trades.