The year was 1978, I was an eighth grader, building a metal tool box for one of our four projects in shop class. Little did we know or understand, we where being taught a trade. Fast forward to 1993 during a trip to New York City. I stood in Grand Central Station, taken aback by the stonework and the engineering. I had been through the terminal before, but never took the time to view the craftsmanship. The journalist and novelist Tom Wolfewould wrote: “Every big city had a railroad station grand to the point of glorious classical architecture that dazzled and intimidated. The great architects of Greece and Rome would have averted their eyes featuring every sort of dome, soaring ceiling, king-size column, royal cornice, lordly echo thanks to the immense volume of the spaces and the miles of marble, marble, marble but the grandest, most glorious of all, by far, was Grand Central Station.”
This summer during my trip to NYC, deep in The Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park, I visited thirteen stone pillars that were installed in the 1910s before Grand Central Terminal was built. Their use was to test the durability of different types of stone that would be used for the facade of Grand Central. I pondered the craftsmen once again, their drive, their skills and the sacrifices their families suffered during construction.
Grand Central Terminal was built between 1903 and 1913, opening February 2, 1913. The terminal was a product of local politics, bold architecture, brutal flexing of corporate muscle and visionary engineering. No other building embodies New York’s ascent as vividly as Grand Central. Its concave ceiling created a view of the heavens from Aquarius to Cancer in an October sky, 2,500 stars, 59 of them illuminated and intersected by two broad golden bands representing the ecliptic and the Equator. For several months, painters debated how to squeeze the heavens onto a cylindrical ceiling, because the artist Paul Helleu’s version seemed more fitting for a dome, and they experimented to find just the proper shade of blue.
Where are these craftsmen today? Where is the drive? Where are the skill sets? Where is the quality? Consider these following statistics. The average age of today’s tradesperson is 56, with an average of 5-15 years until retirement. As skilled laborers retiree in masses, America will need an estimated 10 million new skilled tradesmen by 2020 (such as a pipe fitters, masons, carpenters, or high-skilled factory workers). But even today, an estimated 600,000 jobs in the skilled trades are unfilled and, while 83% of companies report a moderate to serious shortage in skilled laborers.
Not everybody in the modern economy will have “dirt under their nails” after a day’s work;, where are the plumbers, landscapers, carpenters, and electricians? Over time, shop class meant a place where children of “white collar” workers like me, could make toolboxes, a bird feeder or toy car in shop class, but they it had promoted few remaining skills of the true craftsmen, which for centuries had been passed on through a process of apprenticeship.
What can we do about this problem? Although this is a monumental challenge, we can do at least two things. First, praise examples of excellent craftsmanship from auto mechanics, jewelers, masons, electricians and the like that arise above the criticism and display an ethic of skill, beauty and manual intelligence in their work. Second, and most importantly, encourage more young people to go to trade school. While the majority of craftsmen will learn and develop their skills on the job, it is common for most to have at least a high school education. Options exist in community colleges, vocational schools and even higher education institutions for advanced learning.
Here’s to the future: the perfection of our future craftsmen. I respect them and work to generously assist them however I’m able. This will keep me busy until the end of my days. It’s a challenge I gladly accept. I, too, am a craftsman, and always shall be.