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Whatever It Was, It’s Gone

Wanted: Qualified Tradespeople

Sorry for being away so long. Like my tractor whisperer recently reminded me, sometimes you just have to think about things.

Since my last blog I have had some interesting discussions about where we go from here. We as tradespeople, architects, engineers, cultural heritage managers and I dare to say, Mr. & Mrs. John Q Public, are becoming increasingly aware of a confluence of lacks; lack of availability of qualified tradespeople and lack of availability of qualified educational programs to help alleviate the unfulfilled demand. This, for any of you who read my blog, is not new ground for me to set a plow into, but where and why to set that plow seems to me to be the overarching questions. I think we need to do a more thorough assessment of what these lacks are, how they came to be, and whether we have the ability to do anything about them.

The more carefully I look at the problem of the lack of qualified tradespeople, the more I realize my friend Ken Follett is correct. It is not that they don’t exist. It’s the fact that as a culture, we have stopped seeing them, by choice. Clearly there has to be some explanation for qualified tradespeople not even being recognized as living within our society, but I believe we have marginalized the trades so completely that it takes one to see one. We have effectively removed the value of trades so completely that asking someone to see the importance of reviving them is meaningless. We have chosen to remove the trades from our lexicon.

Instant Gratification, but at what cost?

What would explain this apparent attempted extermination? I feel that a lot of the blame can be placed on the rate we move in today’s world. Experience has proven to me that doing good work in my trade requires moving relatively slowly compared to how fast things move in the world of high technology. How much appreciation can you have of the stone carver working on the building you just flew by at 70 miles an hour? You can appreciate, if you choose to, fine craftsmanship on the internet, but how often do we take the time to actually watch it being created? We are much more interested in the product than the process.

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

I also am becoming more and more aware of the insidious nature of how we have degraded the value of craftsmanship by no longer building for our children. Our self-indulgent focus on more faster has completely blurred our vision of the future we are doomed to leave to those who follow us, but where are our footsteps for them to follow? Who among the tradespeople today is the person our children can look up to for guidance and to respect for their knowledge and conviction to build what will make a future worth living in? Who is the Lebron James of the trades?

I’m sure some of you are wondering why Roy Underhill or Mike Rowe don’t fit that category. With all due respect, we have chosen to make them “personalities” instead of role models. In order to give them visibility we have chosen to be entertained by them, more than to celebrate them for what they represent. If the young people of today are to become the tradespeople of tomorrow, they need to be educated by today’s tradespeople, not TV personalities. But the educational system that has devolved into daycare at the public level, and a financial burden for our college graduates has no place for tradespeople as educators.

There are, of course, a few exceptions out there, like Belmont Technical Institute,American College of the Building Arts and Savannah Technical College to name a few, but the valiant folks who have dedicated countless years to making those programs survive will tell you that too much work goes into satisfying the bureaucracy of higher education and not enough into putting tools in the hands of students under the guidance of qualified tradespeople. Effectively we have removed tradespeople from the much needed role of instructors by not recognizing them as such in the first place. The problem of invisibility manifests itself again for the trades when seen from the eyes of higher education.

I have been asked to make suggestions as to where we go from here, and as the title of this blog infers, that is a daunting request. Cultural change is not easy to steer. But a phone call from my friend John C Moore, who heads the Construction Technology program at West Kentucky Community & Technical College, affirmed something I have been thinking is a possible important first step. We need to align industry and education. John nearly lost his program due to underwhelming enrollment and budget tightening. It took input directly to the college from local construction business owners to highlight the importance of educating tomorrow’s construction tradespeople to persuade the college to keep the program alive for now.

The focus has become money first and the education second.

As long as higher education is a competitive system which enriches educational institutions at the expense of tomorrow’s workforce, who start off their carriers deeply in debt, the idea that a degree is the only way you can pay off your education will steer tomorrow’s graduates towards what they consider to be “high paying jobs.” 

What would motivate a student to pursue an education in the trades under these circumstance? If our educational system were to be subsidized by the businesses who need skilled workers, it would be a potential step toward killing two birds with one stone. Imagine what would happen if the government offered some real tangible financial support as well!

I have heard some feedback that tradespeople aren’t cut out for, or even interested in, teaching tomorrow’s tradeswomen and men, but I can tell you from my years of experience teaching workshops and working shoulder to shoulder with other tradespeople in teaching environments, more often than not it’s hard to tell whether the teachers or the students are having more fun. Several stories on NPR recently have highlighted grass roots education programs started by men and women in the trades and aimed at elementary or earlier level students. The demand for those programs has been hard to fulfill and the people who have ventured into this self-made educational programming only have praise for the intense interest shown by their students.

I have also heard, as I am sure many of you have, that today’s students aren’t interested in learning much of anything else but modern technology. I’m here to repeat that is our own fault. If we don’t even recognize and respect the tradespeople in our society, how can we possibly instill interest in the trades in our children?

To me, this is the worst form of future blindness imaginable. I have said before, and will say again (you have been forewarned) we need to give our young people the tools and skills to build and conserve their own future. We sure aren’t doing it. If we want to see progress in education, we need to participate in it. It’s one thing to be irresponsible about what kind of world we are leaving behind us. It’s another entirely to allow a failed educational system to damage our children’s ability to do something about it.

Yes, a lot of technology has been good for our world, but much has been quite damaging. By limiting our view of what we think is important to teach our children, we cripple much of their creativity. Kids can be really creative with tools and materials long before they become adept at technology. We need to teach them how to do both.

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