Modern Trades: How To Teach a Trade

An ironworker with Local 416.
An ironworker with Local 416. Photos by Hector Cruz Sandoval.

The 2016 presidential campaign includes much talk about the loss of manufacturing in America, and the need to ensure people have the skills for new high-tech manufacturing jobs. 

There are still jobs that need the human hand, however, and over the coming weeks we are going to examine the jobs in fabrication and construction where new technology meets traditional skills.

In the first part of a series on DnA called “Modern Trades,” Kelly Candaele talks about how manufacturing and construction trades are being passed on. Candaele is a writer and filmmaker who served four terms as a Trustee of the LA Community College District. He’s spent many months capturing the stories of the construction workers at the 73-story high Wilshire Grand Center in downtown LA.

Jeff-Bice-Local-105
Jeff Bice, with Sheet Metal Workers Local 105.

These buildings of course don’t get built by themselves. You know hundreds and hundreds of workers have to do this work to put that building up. So I was fascinated by what went into the skills that they acquired. You know how those skills were learned and passed on from one generation to another, if they’re in an apprenticeship program for instance. I was interested in the rituals at work. I was interested in different forms of knowledge that these skilled crafts people utilize. And trying to capture that on film.

The theme of it is, you know, how do you connect the brain and the hand in the skilled trades in such a way that the work that you do is up to the standards that are required of that work? And where does that knowledge come from that connects the hand in the brain? Where do you learn it? You know, how is it passed on? How does a journeyman pass on knowledge to an apprentice, for instance? And it’s something that’s been lost I think in our culture, certainly in our schools where many of our public schools have gone away from teaching these trades and these crafts. And I think it’s been a national tragedy to have moved in a direction where a lot of people simply think that these skilled trades are not worthy of choosing. That if you’re going into a construction trade somehow you don’t measure up. And I think that’s a very very myopic view of this.

Members of Ironworkers Local 433.
Members of Ironworkers Local 433.

DnA: And there’s also a good economic reason for going into some of these jobs.

Yes, certainly on the union side you can earn as a journeyman up to $60 an hour. And you can support a family. You can send your kids to school. You have health benefits. You have a pension, which is disappearing from our economy. Obviously less and less people have pensions when they retire. But there’s a lot of pride in these trades. They honor themselves and their brothers and sisters who work next to them. And they’re very often overlooked, so I wanted to take a close look at what they do, how they feel about their work, how they came to do this work, and how they want to pass those traditions on to the next generation.

DnA: Tell us one of the stories that particularly stood out in this regard.

There’s an ironworker name Sefi Edery that I met out there on the site. He is what they call a rodbuster. They put in the iron rebar that provides the shell for the concrete that is poured inside that rebar, thereby stabilizing the building. As I got to know him a little bit I went to his home and I found out that he was also a painter. You know he paints these beautiful paintings that he brings to the work site and he sold some of them to his fellow workmates. So I started asking him about the way that he saw his work and the way that he saw his painting. It was just fascinating the way he talked about the way his painting and what he does at work kind of coincide. He sees the rebar as a kind of patterns that are really fascinating to him like the pattern of muscle tensile or the pattern of a shirt. And this is artistic thinking.

So it just exploded this whole myth. This cliché that construction workers somehow might be limited in their thinking and I just found so many stories like that, of people who are so bright and so intelligent and took those skills and their creativity and apply it to this work. They’re all over the place.

DnA: But this fellow who’s laying rebar for example, where did he get his trade?

Well, he learned it in a school, in an apprenticeship school. You know all of the unions have four and five year apprenticeship programs where they’re very rigorous. You know they’re not just teaching hand knowledge, which of course is very important. How to put things together, how to utilize rebar, how to carry, but also how to read blueprints. Or the physics of how a crane operates. And those programs last for four and five years.  When you come out you’re a journeyman. They call it turning out as a journeyman, that’s when you’re making the highest wage. And then those journeymen work with an apprentice on the work sites, teaching the apprentice the skills that they’ve learned.

Cesar Medina, with Sheet Metal Workers Local 105.
Cesar Medina, with Sheet Metal Workers Local 105.

One of the interesting philosophical themes that I was looking into was the notion of tacit knowledge. And that is knowledge that we know but we don’t have the ability to tell. It’s hand knowledge. It’s body knowledge. It’s implicit knowledge. So you can’t read it in a book. You can’t write it. You can’t really write and tell someone how to drive a car. But you know how to do it from experience and learning. So I was fascinated by that. It’s an idea from Michael Polanyi, a philosopher, about tacit knowledge. And he thinks it’s part of, most of the knowledge that we gain as human beings. That it’s a disaster to ignore it because it’s so important in most of the work that we do.

DnA: Both a lot of these trades as you yourself have discovered and written about these days require knowledge of, say, computing. Which is not tacit knowledge. Are the trades these days a kind of mixing of tacit, hand-eye knowledge coupled with some school knowledge?

Exactly. I mean it’s fascinating. Just the new tools that people are using on these job sites. I mean there are people that are running Caterpillars or backhoes, that are able to look into the glasses that they wear, these kind of semi goggles, and see blueprints in those goggles of what they are digging up. In other words, the blueprints are right in front of them that they can see and it’s projected onto the ground that they are working on. Same thing with these Trimble machines that plumbers use that tell you by G.P.S. through a machine that you’re utilizing out in the field where exactly the hole should go for the sleeves or the pipe that they’re putting into a ceiling or a floor. It’s just fascinating, the technology, how information is delivered to the workers out in the workplace. The ability to utilize this technology and understand this technology is really crucial.

DnA: Do you think the jobs are out there for people to take but maybe there needs to be some more education about what these jobs are? And do you think the paths are there to get to these jobs?

Ignacio Diaz with Laborers Local 300.
Ignacio Diaz with Laborers Local 300.

Yeah that’s a really good question. In fact L.A. Unified School District right now is working with the building trades on a core curriculum program that they’re offering to all juniors and seniors. Offering it to them, you don’t have to take it, it’s an elective. But it’s 120 hours where they can, if they take these classes, learn about all of these trades. It might be for people who say, I don’t want to go to college at this time but I want to have a good career. I don’t want to work in McDonald’s. I want to have something where I can have a future. And take care of a family. So that’s happening at L.A. Unified and that’s very, very important because as you know all of those vocational programs were stripped away.

DnA: Shop! We used to call it.

Yeah we used to have shop class, I took shop class. Well, there were options like shop class and automobile repair and all that kind of stuff. But the shop classes were kind of stripped away. I mean obviously they might be more costly so you know we understand that. But given this option that not everyone is going to go to college, not everyone wants to go to college or they might want to delay college, but they want to have a good career, this is going to be very helpful.

The great thing about these union apprenticeship programs is that the workers who are going through them. You know the apprentices who are who are going through them for five years don’t pay anything. They’re free for the worker themselves. So they don’t come out of those apprenticeship programs with fifty or sixty thousand dollars of debt. They come up with skills and a job.

Kelly Candaele is currently at work on a documentary about the building of the Wilshire Grand Center. It’s called “Heads, Hands and Hearts: Craftsmanship at Work.” See more videos from the project here.