While reports say that interest in the trades is on a decline, many in the region are fighting to keep interest in skilled trades such as blacksmithing and masonry alive. Pictured are blacksmithing tools and metal-worked creations in a warehouse artisan Vera Johnson is converting into an arts center in Wilton. Kay Neufeld/Livermore Falls Advertiser Buy this Photo

REGION — There is an “unprecedented skilled labor shortage” taking hold in America, Forbes reported in 2019. The pandemic has only exacerbated that shortage. Many fear skilled trades such as masonry and blacksmithing, art forms in their own right, are “dying out.”

All the while, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that available employment opportunities and wages, which reached a decade high in 2018, will continue to grow for skilled trades such as construction through 2026.

Steve Mitchell, founder of the Maine School of Masonry, said he’s had trouble recruiting at the country’s only private, non-profit masonry school while the demand soars for masons that graduate from his program.

“It used to be money that I used to push everybody. Then I went into art, that it’s a wonderful art. I’m trying anything to get their attention,” Mitchell said. “Right now there’s such a need. It’s amazing the work there is out there.”

Mitchell said the school has a long list of contractors “that will take any student that graduates from school here.”

Little interest

This begs the question, why aren’t more people interested in the skilled trades? Tradespeople in the region believe that a generational change is partly to blame.

“Most young people today are a product of our society. It’s not the same world as it was when I grew up,” said Stan Tilton, president of the Western Maine Blacksmiths Association. “Most times young people, it looks to me like when they realize there’s work involved in blacksmithing, they look for other things that interest them.”

Mitchell agreed. He said that the societal change in popular forms of entertainment is to blame.

While “in the old days (kids) had to go outside and find something fun to do,” today, kids are entertained by “playing (video) games, sitting on the couch, watching the television.”

When we were kids…we would do something with our hands,” he said. “(Today’s kids) are not working with their hands. In the 40 years that I’ve been working in the high school vocational classes, they can’t hammer a nail now.”

PBS reported that a negative perception of manual labor is also to blame. “There’s this stigma that goes along with getting your hands dirty,” plumber Trevor Caldwell told PBS.

Mitchell also spoke of a push to go the collegiate route as cause for a lack of tradespeople.

In the ’40s and ’50s, more colleges had more to offer young people, that’s the direction they started heading,” Mitchell said. He believes it’s increasingly been that way ever since.

Tyler Kachnovich, owner of T&T Landscape and Masonry and a 24-year-old graduate of the Maine School of Masonry believes that nowadays, teachers aren’t as encouraging of the trades as they should be.

“(High school teachers) don’t recommend going to trade school. It’s all college stuff they try to drive into you,” he said.

Kachnovich isn’t sure why teachers do this, but considers the fact that masonry is “crazy hard work” that’s “very hard on your body” partly to blame.

Start earlier

Mitchell, however, feels this is a problem that can be fixed by teaching the trades in elementary schools so that kids are exposed at a younger age and “when they become juniors and seniors (in high school), they will look at masonry as fun.”

“They’ve got to get in the younger grades, follow them up through and do stuff with them so that they have fun working with their hands and it’s not work for them,” Mitchell said. “I go into schools. I teach masonry classes, building construction. I do my best to get around and teach courses to try and turn on the students.”

Vera Johnson, owner of Vera’s Iron and Vine in Farmington, believes that the key to saving trades like blacksmithing is offering children access to these art forms and making them passionate. Though Johnson estimates she’s a year away from completing a conversion of Wilton’s old canning factory into an arts center that will offer blacksmithing and welding classes, among other opportunities, she is already thinking about how she will engage the children in the community. Kay Neufeld/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Vera Johnson, an artisan in Franklin County who does welding and blacksmithing agrees that getting children involved in trades at a young age is a good plan of attack. She used to teach kids blacksmithing while living in Seattle. Some of those students, who became interested in blacksmithing at nine and ten years old, are still partaking in the art form today. One will be traveling to Franklin County to work as Johnson’s apprentice in the coming months.

“I think you have to catch them when they’re young because habits are formed at a young age,” she said.

Johnson believes that increasing access to the necessary tools and instruments is another way to save these art forms from “fading.”

“They’re definitely fading art forms but I think that there are a lot of people that are so much more interested in it,” she said. “Access to people who can appreciate it is a middle ground that needs to be looked at.”

Johnson, who owns Vera’s Iron and Vine in Farmington, is currently working on opening an arts center in Wilton to increase that access. Johnson will open metalworking and welding studios alongside pottery and jewelry studios with a woodworking shop in an adjoining building.

She plans to offer demonstrations and classes where people of all ages will be able to “learn to use the equipment” and then have access.

Though she is a year away from opening the center across from Kineowatha Park, Johnson is already thinking about “how I am going to engage these kids.”

In the meantime, Tilton and the Western Maine Blacksmiths Association often offer access to an open coal forge on Friday nights at the Farmington Fairgrounds.

Tilton believes “you don’t have to look far to find some information” and commends the internet and YouTube as a “tremendous source” for blacksmithing information.

“You don’t need fancy things to have a forge fire in the backyard,” he said. 

Tilton also encourages a return to purchasing handmade items from artists and appreciating the value of those items, rather than buying cheaper machine-made products from a catalogue.

Though the masons are disappearing, a need for them will only grow over the years, according to Mitchell. Buildings, statues and monuments that were built 100 to 125 years ago are “starting to deteriorate” and finding masons who can do historic restorations is currently “a real big need.”

There’s going to be less masons around so they’ll be able to pick their jobs and make a real, real good living,” he said.

Will there ever be a better reason or time to get involved? Mitchell doesn’t seem to think so.

Comments are not available on this story.