Many of you know John Ratzenberger from his role as Cliff Clavin on the popular sitcom “Cheers”. Cliff was a postal worker who spent his free time eating peanuts and drinking beer. John, on the other hand, is an accomplished actor who spends his free time advocating on behalf of education for the construction industry. John is a Senior Fellow at the Center for America, a nonprofit organization committed to reinvigorating skills and entrepreneurship in the United States. We recently learned of John’s passion for carpentry, and approached him for an exclusive TiC interview!
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THISisCarpentry: We understand that you were a carpenter, framing houses in New England, before you became an actor. How did you get into carpentry?
John Ratzenberger: I became a carpenter because I received training in school in working with wood. Equally important, I was encouraged from an early age to tinker and learn how to build and fix things. It was part of our self-reliant upbringing in one of the world’s great manufacturing towns, Bridgeport, CT. Everyone knew how to build and fix things, so it was natural that I would take up working with my hands. It’s critical that we get back to that ethos in America—it’s building and fixing things that built our civilization and brought America to the dance, so to speak. And, by learning skills and returning to those values of self-reliance, it’s the way we’ll get back to where we need to be as a country.
TiC: We feature in-depth, well-illustrated articles that detail step-by-step projects—both on the jobsite and in the workshop. What projects have you tackled on your own home? Would you care to share some pictures, and a brief story or two, with our readers?
JR: The most recent projects I’ve worked on are with young people at Bradley Tech, a vocational and technical high school in Milwaukee. We worked on house framing, and I showed the young people a few tricks I learned with a hammer about avoiding the inevitable ‘blue thumb’. I spent a great deal of time as a roofer, and one of my greatest pleasures has been showing my children buildings on which I worked as a builder, carpenter and roofer. It’s something solid, tangible, and lasting, which creates a sense of pride. That’s one of the main reasons I encourage young people to learn skills. At Bradley Tech, we took a basic frame and joist and connected it to a foundation of sorts. I was impressed with the practical mathematical skills of the young people involved in the project—they knew something important was at stake when they did their house framing calculations, so they were highly attentive to accuracy. It’s that sort of practical application that brings traditional learning to life, and I support it fully.
TiC: You have had a long and varied acting career. How would you compare the craft of acting to the craft of carpentry?
JR: I was an English major who knew how to work with my hands, crafting and building things. So my love of the written and expressed word fits well with my love of crafting things from scratch. You have to have an imagination, and to also know what the limits are—what works and what doesn’t, and learn from trial and error. These are disciplines that come into play with acting, whether on TV, in films, and with voice characters, as I’ve done in every Pixar movie.
TiC: Let’s talk about the trades in America. Just 15 years ago we still had some public schools teaching wood shop, printing, auto shop, drafting, electrical, and metal work. Today, those programs have all but died out. You mentioned, in a Washington Times article, that parental safety concerns may explain why we have lost funding for these public school programs. How do we address this challenge? How do we encourage parents to believe in the value of the trades when safety is such a natural concern?
JR: The lawsuit-happy culture in which we live today creates fears that don’t match with actual danger in far too many cases. In the dozens of trade and skills programs I’ve visited in the last few years, the shop floors and environment are safer today than they’ve ever been. The problem is that public school districts face the rising threat of lawsuits, have to pay higher premiums for insurance every year as a result of the threat, and they conclude that it’s less expensive to simply cancel the programs. That’s why I support civil justice reform in the states to enable people, companies, organizations and schools to get back to a predictable playing field where liabilities are real and not the product of a creative plaintiff lawyer.
TiC: What is the importance of having shop classes in the public school system, as opposed to mainly teaching the trades in vocational technical schools?
JR: I believe it’s a lifetime program. By that, I mean that young kids should have the chance to tinker, invent and create in a school and at home. I think it’s important for schools to provide practical skills training from an early age—I had that training, and it made a world of difference for me and many of my age group. That said, it’s also vital that we have technical training available beyond high school and for those millions of Americans in career transitions right now.
TiC: Let’s talk about “Industrial Tsunami”. What is the message you want to send with this documentary project? Where are you in the production process? How do you see the documentary contributing to the betterment of the trades and the lives of tradesmen?
JR: The skilled worker crisis in America is real, it’s happening now, and it will only get worse if we don’t act soon. The average age of the American skilled worker is 55 years old, and there simply aren’t enough people in the skills pipeline to fill the coming void. Right now, hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs go unfilled because employers cannot find skilled workers. The scale of the problem is huge—it’s a significant factor in our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and will become a national security concern if we don’t right the ship. That’s a driving force behind the 10 By 20 Pledge for America campaign—10 million skilled jobs by 2020, hosted by Center for America (www.centerforamerica.org). I’m a Board member of this organization, and I’m proud that we’re tackling this problem. One of the first steps to remedy the situation is to encourage immediate action at the local level—connecting schools and community organizations with skills training and employers. It’s a virtuous circle that can start right now, without Washington and Wall Street. We’ll focus back on the documentary itself once we fully communicate with the American people through the media about this crisis.
TiC: You’ve commented before on the media’s pattern of portraying tradesmen in a poor light. How do we change that?
JR: We need to speak with our feet. When TV shows, films and the mainstream media portray skilled workers—essential workers—as shifty, lazy and stupid, we need to walk away. Advertisers and film funders are alert to these trends. What we also need to do is talk about this online, in our newspapers, and in our schools and communities. Not too many years ago, skilled workers were considered heroes. Rosie the Riveter powered the Allies to victory in World War II. We need to get back to that mindset. Recent natural disasters put a fine point on it—when roads fall apart and the power goes out, we grind to a halt until skilled workers put us back in operation. We depend on them, so we owe them our respect.
TiC: We first learned about your industry activism through an email newsletter from Center for America. What is your role in the organization, and how do you see it serving to better the industry?
JR: I’m on the Board of the Center for America, and I’ve been impressed with the way the Center tackles tough issues. We’re cutting through the clutter of sound bites and partisan bickering in order to help everyday Americans understand the whole story-behind-the-story about major issues facing America, including the skilled worker crisis, our lawsuit-happy culture and its costs to our quality of life, and the increasingly harsh regulatory environment that is crippling the ability to create jobs. I see a direct link between this type of effort and the well-being of American employers and, specifically, the carpentry and woodworking industries. If everyday Americans better understand the stakes and the solutions, we’re going to expect more from our elected leaders and from each other. That’s the way to get things done.
TiC: In a recent New Yorker article, John Cassidy wrote about the causes of our national recession. He cited the natural progression of capitalism, in addition to calculated policy measures—specifically, policy that has attacked trade unions and labor laws, opened the US market to cheap foreign competition, and essentially abandoned the training and re-training of the country’s non-college-graduate work force. Do you see a connection between the trades and the revitalization of the economy?
JR: While I might take issue with a few of Cassidy’s conclusions, because I’m a fan of entrepreneurism and free enterprise, I agree that the training and re-training of the non-college-graduate work force is absolutely critical to future American economic survival and success. I don’t believe that government has all the solutions here—some of the best skills training programs around America are run by private sector employers, unions, and community-based organizations that don’t rely on taxpayer funding. That said, allocating a fair share of taxpayer resources in our schools to vocational and technical training is an important goal that cannot be abandoned. I’ll say this, too: Many of the skilled jobs of today and the future may require college educations in addition to technical training. The nature of skilled jobs has a terrific history, and these jobs are stable, secure and well-paid. I’m counting on American self-reliance and innovation to drive the skills training effort—good ideas are out there right now, and they need to spread to all communities to get the job done.
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We thank John for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with THISisCarpentry. We obviously share John’s passion about the importance of education in the trade industries, and we encourage all of our readers to join the 10 By 20 Pledge for America Campaign.