A Life in the Trades: December 2009

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009.

By Nicholas Bogosian

When did manual competence become inferior to informational and technological competence? When did blue-collar become blue-collar? When did the college degree become superior to vocational training? In recent years, this dichotomy has been explored in academic realms to reveal fascinating insight. In truth, the line between the manual and the intellectual cannot be divided so easily.

The work of the preservation tradesman, like many other trades, must utilize the mind and hand in ways which few other careers can match in the modern world. The tradesman is not simply a field-trip factory worker cranking out the steps he or she learned back in trade school. The preservation tradesmen, in particular, rely on their knowledge of material sciences, history (human and building), building construction, conservation methods, the use of tools and various technologies, and manual proficiency at various building crafts. Their learning is a process which extends far beyond their initial training in a world where every new project is a process of new research and insight. Indeed, the critical thinking and management of all these elements into an informed decision and application seems to be a truer throwback to what we once called the “Renaissance Man.” The interdisciplinary character of the preservation trades can seem overwhelming and exhilarating.

Dave Mertz, director of the Building Preservation and Restoration program at Belmont Technical College, explains about his paper “The Role of Higher Education in Traditional Trades Training” that

“As late as the 19th century, the construction trades were considered highly desirable fields which required manual dexterity, critical thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge. This array of skills attracted highly qualified apprentices who were academically proficient and career driven. With the advent of higher education in America, the role of the training shifted from the practitioner to the technical and vocational schools and the quality of the student began to slowly diminish as parents, teachers and guidance counselors pushed their children into career paths that were deemed more socially and financially advantageous, leaving those who were not deemed “college bound” to fill the trades and other jobs perceived to be laborious in nature.

Today, students who struggle academically or who are socially maladjusted are often pushed into high school vocational programs. This influx of under-prepared and often unmotivated class of students along with the shift to assembly-like construction practices during the post-war building boom has led to the “dumbing” of the trades. Today’s preservation trades programs have begun to challenge the academic paradigm of the past fifty years by reinventing traditional trades education under the banner of historic preservation and at a collegiate level.”

Ken Follett, a historic conservation specialist in Mastic Beach, New York writes in his article, “A Contractor’s View of Craft Training”:

“The very idea that any modestly literate young individual should choose anything but a college education seems to run contrary to an economically-driven myth of our education system. (In crude terms, I think the myth runs something like: Pay up, and we will teach you how to capture the golden goose.) As well, respect paid to the trade of an artisan becomes a threat to the dreams of hard-working parents. Parents who work with their hands, especially, hope their children will not follow them in a career of physical labor…

Why is the preservation industry so incredibly lopsided in favor of intellectual occupations, to the neglect of hands-on craft? I have not met many people who think that a young person following a trade career is not headed on a difficult way in life, especially where higher education is available. Granted, physical labor makes a person tired. But it does not reduce brain cells. On the other hand, too much schooling can dull the senses, inhibit thirst for life, and inflate an individual’s self-importance. And however much is spent on an education, it does not increase the quantity of brain cells….

Hands-on work is not a refuge in a simpler life and it is unfortunate if a vital national resource, the skilled craftsperson working in traditional trades, is allowed to be stereotyped as a theme worker whereby anyone can take it up as a hobby. Construction contracting is not trivial; it is highly complex and demanding. There is an undeniable amount of pain in the fully engaged practice of hoisting two cement bags at one time; this is not a pursuit that comes easy. Progress is measured, not by a high grade-point average, but by food on the table. The gap between those who design and those who implement, between those who think about it and those who have a constant backache and dirty hands, is a convergence of two economic classes. The educational ideals of these two classes, totally foreign, collide at the building site. And neither system of ideals seems disposed to admit the validity of the other. There are few exceptions.”

Matthew B. Crawford majored in physics in undergraduate school and earned his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy. He later ditched numerous “information jobs” to open up a vintage motorcycle repair shop in Virginia. He wrote an essay for The New Atlantic which he later expanded into book form entitled, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Here’s an excerpt:

“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job.”

In another example of such matters being criticized, Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at NYU and at The London School of Economics, recently wrote an opus of sociological investigation with his 2008 book, The Craftsman. In it, he explores the meaning of the craftsman through history. Though Sennett does argue that the art of “doing as thinking” in craftsmanship is intrinsic, he does not believe that the craftsman has disappeared over time, rather that the intrinsic qualities have merely shifted into other areas of our economy: the computer programmer, the doctor, the parent, the musician, the chef. However, for those interested in the role of the craftsman through time and what makes them unique, this work is fascinating in its insight.

Matthew B. Crawford states, “Tom Thompson, of Oregon’s Department of Education, says there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that one of the fastest-growing segments of the student body at community colleges is people who already have a four-year degree and return to get a marketable trade skill.” He later goes on to say that 98% of those who graduate get jobs in their first year after finishing.

Though not all college degrees create abstracted job skills, I agree with Crawford’s sentiment that higher education is sometimes failing in its practicality and application. My step-father finds humor in the fact that he graduated with an architecture degree and was asked in one of his first interviews upon graduation, “Do you know how to change a light switch?” Well, he couldn’t. I know myself and a few others in the Building Preservation & Restoration program at Belmont Technical College are attending with previous undergraduate and graduate degrees ranging from history, economics, to theatre. I can’t speak for the others, but it was the specific career-defining move that attending such a trade school creates that drew me here. Dave Mertz, the director of our program, receives more job offers for students in the preservation field than can be filled. There’s a boom right now in the demand for preservation craftsmen as never before. It is heartening to know that at least under the “banner of historic preservation,” our skills are needed and that we should find work for many years to come.

———————————————

Crawford, Matthew B. Shop Class As Soulcraft. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009).

Follett, Ken. “A Contractor’s View of Craft Training.” 1997: Cultural Resource Management, an online journal from the National Park Service. Volume 20, Number 12.

Mertz, Dave. “The Role of Higher Education in Traditional Trades Training.” From the International Trades Education Symposium, 2009. Web. http://www.iptw.org/iptw09-ites-speakers.htm.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008).

4 thoughts on “A Life in the Trades: December 2009

  1. Sabra Smith says:

    “There’s a boom right now in the demand for preservation craftsmen as never before. It is heartening to know that at least under the “banner of historic preservation,” our skills are needed and that we should find work for many years to come.”

    I hope this indicates a growing recognition that the intrinsic craftsmanship found in vintage buildings is a diminishing and nonrenewable resource that must be protected and preserved. As a preservationist, and the owner of a vintage home, I can attest to the need for more tradespeople who combine skills and knowledge with preservation passion.

  2. Kelly says:

    I really enjoyed Crawford’s book, especially as someone asking myself these very questions- is it ok that I’d prefer to work with my hands rather than research and write?
    Coming from a BA preservation program into the real world, the trades seemed to me to be this “hidden side” of preservation that I hadn’t really considered before… and kind of strange for them to be hidden away like this, because this is all so important, and so much more fun! I’m now looking at going back to trades school in the fall!

  3. Mark Landry says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay. As a preservation contractor in Massachusetts, some of my best employees have been college educated people who are in the field not because they didn’t have other options, but because they have a passion for restoring historic properties. I, myself, was a biology/pre-med major in college and discovered that I did not have a passion for medicine. Imagine my mother’s chagrin when, instead of entering medical school, I took a job a carpenter! At the time, I must admit, I felt a little uneasy around all of my friends who were working as doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Eventually, many of them admitted that they’d much rather be doing what I do!

    Mark Landry
    Landmark Services

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