Colorado needs a renewed vision of the craftsman.
Lately, everybody is talking about workforce development. This week the Biennial of the Americas featured a discussion on the topic. Careerwise Colorado continues to make headlines placing youth in apprenticeships across the state. The Denver City Council’s economic and workforce development group is hosting a series of roundtables to address the woeful shortage of construction labor.
And for good reason. The Association of General Contractors of America says that 85 percent of Colorado companies are having a hard time filling craft positions, like carpenters, concrete workers, and electricians. Though good paying jobs are in ample supply, technical and “middle skill” labor is sorely needed.
To meet this need, noble efforts like Build Colorado emphasize career paths and high pay to try and fill the thousands of pipefitter, mason, and management jobs.
But there is a critical gap in the trades pipeline: our k-12 educational system.
Greg Schmidt, CEO at Saunders Construction, says, “Though we have carpenters making over $40,000/year and superintendents making $75,000-$100,000/year, my own kids go to a school where this path isn’t even an option.” By stressing a four-year college degree for all students, many k-12 schools have implied that a technical degree leading to a job as a craftsman is second class. With the decline of vocational education, many times students don’t even know this is a viable option.
What is needed is a renewed vision of the intelligence, beauty, and vocation of craftsmanship in our educational system.
Intelligence. Educator Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work, says about our cultural image of the tradesmen: “We are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hands and brain.” Yet this was not always so. In the 18th and 19th century, some of history’s finest scientists – Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), James Watt (1736-1819), Samuel Crompton (1753-1827)– were also craftsmen who built what they designed, and knew no separation between working with the hands and the mind.
Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911) gathered craft knowledge, organized it into high efficiency processes, and standardized much manual labor. A previous harmony between craftsman and scientist, skilled laborer and thinker, was ruptured. Today, we see that rupture between the liberal arts and “vocational education.”
Scholars like Matthew Crawford have pointed out the intelligence of craftsmen, often overlooked by those of us who can barely change a light bulb.
Beauty. Before the industrial revolution, a city’s artists and tradesmen were often the same thing: Each made structures for both utility and beauty. Architecture adorning even apartment complexes in cities like Barcelona show this fact.
Justin Hales, an electrician at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, says, “When you turn your pipes, make them uniform—that’s art. It probably goes unnoticed to the average person, but we see it. We take pride in our work.”
To call the work of tradesmen “public art” is not far from the truth. Rarely do most Coloradans attend art galleries. But millions drive down I25 and see towering edifices adorning Denver’s skyline. The maze of underground sewage and water pipes has a humble beauty, bringing sanitation and liquid life to all of us.
Vocation. A vocation is a summons to live life for greater purposes beyond personal benefit. Work as a calling has intrinsic value; work as just a paycheck leaves us longing for meaning.
The Christian tradition recalls that God himself became a tekton, or a craftsman, on earth, thus dignifying manual labor that Greeks and Romans looked down upon. Even if culture looks down upon those with “dirty jobs,” to use Mike Rowe’s term, today’s craftsmen are in divine company.
In an age of growing social inequality, a middle skill job is America’s best pathway from poverty to the middle class. Yet in order to build this pipeline across Colorado, our educators need to recover older traditions about the craftsman.