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.
Not only in the USA but in Canada too. All of North America needs more skilled workers.
Whenever our education pendulum swings, it seems to swing too far in the wrong direction..and for too long. I was discouraged by my high school guidance counselors (during the mid-sixties) from pursuing anything other than a college education. I did attend college and after two semesters signed on for a one year technical course in carpentry and cabinetmaking.
My son left his college career- tracked high school in 9th grade for a vocational and trade scool. The prevailing attitude-in 1996- was that this vocational school was offering little more than preparing students for careers in quaint crafts like ‘candlemaking and blacksmithing’.
I am 60 years young…I have been building for just under 40 years and I cannot think of a better nor more exciting time to be involved in the profession of home building, renovation, retrofiitting and conservation carpentry. We have made many, many mistakes with our building shells and envelopes during the past 30 years. But, I strongly feel that we are stepping into a truly golden age of building design, construction and the new art of building science. If our educators cannot get this through their heads that they spend 98% of their time inside a built environment–either working, living, or playing- we must , somehow, as John explained…simply bypass them.
Thank you for an enlightening interview with “Cliff”.
I also am aware that I have also contributed to this decline in younger people learning the trade…….I stopped interviewing or hiring those who had no vocational or family background in carpentry. I gave up because of attitude problems; those who were consistently being late for work…or not showing up at all; not having a valid driver’s license; and not wlling to be able to come up with even our basic requirements for hand tools…the most basic.
I simply find it ‘easier’ to hire people in their late 40’s and up. Yes…it IS a shame. For 32 years I have tried to hire younger crew members who have no background
in any of the trades………I have found it to be just too expensive to hire someone who doesn’t seem to care to want to work. Plus it demoralizes the older guys to have to try to carry someone who won’t help us.
I agree with the whole national perception of trade workers and the fact that it needs to change. I was walking through an unnamed big box store when I overheard an employee tell a customer that the difference between these 2 different gallons of paint of the same color was that the more expensive one was a quality product and the lesser of the 2 was more of a ‘builder grade’. Now I’m only in my mid 30’s but my blood began to instantly boil and it was all I could do to not grab this ‘associate’ – who was probably 10 years my senior – by the ear and say “if you wanna see builder grade, come to one of my job-sites”.
I know I am trying to do my part to try to change this perception with every client (or even potential client) that I come in contact with. Thanx for backing us up John.
This article with John is important for everyone who is involved in the trades industry to read and pay attention to. I will wait to see the documentary. If it’s anything as informative as this piece has been maybe it can begin to change the way everyday people think about skilled tradesmen. I’m a bit tired of a homeowner first thinking that because I’m a contractor I’m most likely prone to cheating him or destroying his house in trying to extrapolate funds from his bank account. We have always worked as hard as we could to give the owner everything and then some with the completion of the projects we build. I have yet to have to resort to advertising. I have been building for over 40 years. I am one of those skilled craftsmen who are somewhere in the 55 year old bracket. We are a dying breed. Either we do something soon to help change that fact or I and my fellow craftsmen will pass away and all anyone can do is hope a factory in China will send someone to fix whatever is broken. Because it’s never going to be fixed by the lawyers in the neighborhood. They’ll just hang around waiting for something to drop or someone to hurt themselves. When I was a young apprentice in Somerville Trade High School in 1972, one of my instructors told me that the nation was going to have to produce a workforce of 20 million tradesmen to build all the infrastructure of this growing nation and this was to have been done by the turn of the millennium. So my question is, What Happened? Who decided we really need to produce 20 million lawyers instead?
Kristen. Great article really enjoyed reading it thanks. He also wrote a book a few years back and had a chapter in their about when he worked at Woodstock it was a trip. And a funny story
Thanks John for your time
great article. its so true how the labor force is hurting for more and more skilled workers. im in canada and have my journeymans ticket in carpentry. the last couple months i dont know how many calls ive recieved from contractors either asking me directly to come work for them or if i knew any carpenters looking for work. this is both for residential and commercial construction.
Whats even more scary is that my city was just awarded a $250 billion dollar ship building contract for both the navy and coast guard.with this their going to be needing roughly 4000 skilled tradesman from every trade.. when they fill these positions how many companys are going to be losing guys and who is going to fill these gaps. we need kids coming out of high school to step up and not only fill this void but to exceed at it. too many kids today want to be paid top dollar but dont want to do any work …. hate to say it this but they have the mentality of the union guys around here… hence why the union guys cant get work
Mr. Ratzenberger, THANK YOU. I had been preaching this same story for years. I also felt like the lone stranger doing it also.
As a retired I.A./ Voc. Tech. instructor, it is my biased opinion, that education is the only answer. These sorts of problems always have surfaced in the past.
As a lic. G.C. today, it is my responsibility to see to it that my guys do a great job. It is also my responsibility to make sure that my guys have that education. I check on my guys all the time testing that they can measure, that they don’t have a waste pile as big as a semi. That they know what code is,…& that they can build PAST code.
It is also my responsibility to see to it that my guys have a living wage. For that living wage they owe me a fair days work, that they continually learn, that they make sure that the customer gets more than they expected. NO YOU CAN”T BE OVER BUDGET!
At the end of all this, they can walk tall. Yes, other contractors hire my guys.
Life is still education. The circle is continued.
The union guys can’t get work because the unions have all been busted. Those union guys have done just what John said they should do they worked their way up to a good paying job by going through trade schools and programs to learn a trade. Only to have it given to someone from south of the border for a quarter of the rate with less skill. Makes sence if you want to keep the share holders happy. It’s nuts if want to build a sound and stable work force and strong middle class.
Been in construction 43 years have 5 children. Never once heard a parent say they were going to sue, or school administrator say they were worried about safety. What I did hear was ” we’re cutting the class because of lack of interest” or “my kid would rather spend his time playing computer games”. All the kids want to go right to the top. Forget working your way up or learning a trade. Want to know why the Mexican guy gets the job. Part of the reason is he’s willing to learn and work. Question is what happens when he can’t make more than $10 an hour. Who will he complain to ? Maybe John can tell him it’s because of all the lawsuit happy people in the world.
This stuff about a “lawsuit happy culture and it’s costs to our quality of life” and “harsh regulatory environment” is a red herring or brown cow mature depening on your point of view. If you want to be non partisan then take the corporate sponsorship out of the equation. If you want to create good paying skilled jobs stop paying undocumented workers $5 an hour for a job that should pay $25. Or get real an organize the undocumented guys so at least they can make a liveable wage. You tell me how to compete when a builder hires a van load of guys for $30 an hour. That’s $30 for the entire crew. Does the builder lower his sell price because he just cut his labor cost by 80% ? Sure. After all he’s a good “entrepreneur”.
Never had a problem with OSHA when I nearly put out my eye with a gang nail because I wasn’t wearing safty glasses, or smashed my toe because I had no steal toe boots, or lost a finger to a radial arm saw. But that was back when they could care less about worker safety. Now I don’t know one crew that does not comply, and they all still have their fingers.
If John wants to do some good he should pay more attention to the facts of our culture. We live in a capitalistic system. No getting around it. You can’t have your cake and beer and nuts to. The skilled work force has been declining for the last 30 years. Why ?
No sound bites please. Just answer the question. The gap between the rich and poor is staggering. Where have all the jobs gone and why ? What jobs do we have left and who is doing the work ? Who is reaping the profit from that labor and blaming us workers we are ripping them off ? We need to be better informed, and not by Fox news. We need to change this mess. That’s the real problem. How do we do that without coming apart at the seams. Maybe it can’t be done. But then in construction all things are possible.
What a pleasure it is to read such a clear, thoughful, and well-researched interview. These ideas are simple and make sense. Thank you TiC for providing interesting articles every week that keep me informed and allow my education to expand.
Just another great article on TiC !
I totally agree with the “Cliff.” I could also ask the question about risk aversion. So why do we still have high school football? We have teachers retained and advanced that are a disgrace to the profession. I’ve certainly seen this in the “industrial arts” which is for sure a misnomer. A teachers union that protects the worst no matter what. The best and the worst get the same rewards. What kind of a system is that. Broken comes to mind.
Well meaning but I’m not convinced worrying about frivolous lawsuits is the answer to the problem here.
I’m concerned that large corporations and insurance companies have everything to gain by leading us to believe that there needs to be a limit on liability claims.
If someone in your family gets seriously injured due to the negligence of others, a limit on the court claim (due to Tort Reform) may not be nearly enough to make the situation right.
Part of the problem is there simply isn’t the demand for the trades that there was during the boom times after WWII. Less demand = smaller percentage of tradesfolk.
While the United States has done away with shop and similar high school courses because of “parental safety concerns” European countries have expanded their vocational programs to meet their various country skilled worker needs needs. Then again European countries treat their post secondary vocational programs at the same level of regard as their post secondary college and university programs, in some instances more so. Educational leadership in the US is sadly lacking.
Vocational programs have gotten a bad rap from the US public at large. No wonder we can’t fill the need for skilled workers in the US.
Perhaps Germany, France or Sweden will lend us some.
Too many guy’s competing for too little pay along with a cost of living that has increased significantly. I see that as the issue in New England and I bet everywhere else also. If there was a shortage of skilled workers, I would think they would attract top pay but they don’t. Why doesn’t pay go up with the increasing costs of everything else? If you want to attract young people to the trades then they need to see examples of successful role models. That’s hard to find especially if you measure success by the size of ones bank account. (People who work with their hands need the tax breaks.) -Work ’til your dead, it’s the American way-. Sounds like a funny bumper sticker but it’s hard to sell to someone looking to choose a career. So blue collar or white, just make sure you like what you do because there will be no retirement for an increasing number of tradespeople or any worker for that matter.
Yes, sadly, work ’till you’re dead. So I expect. We are now living in a DIY world. All the mystique of the skills of tradesworkers have been trivialized by fancy camera techniques, scripted and edited how-to sessions, and the underwriters of great tools that suggest that good work is within easy reach if you just have a free weekend. 40 years of experience? No matter, I saw them do that on TV and the guy at (you know where) said to buy this and do that. The learning curve seems gentle though the climb to success is getting steeper. I love what I do but I must admit I was richer ($ wise) doing it 20 years ago, even though I am smarter, more skilled , more professional, faster and more relaxed too, then I ever was as a young fellow. Sadly, I can offer no answers.
Mr John R
I totally agree with you on Vocational / Technical High School training.
Please check out the following web-site on Fairless Hills Vocational/Technical High School. When is the last time you heard of parents camping out the night before to get their children into school.????
I wish that each city had a school like this.
Take Care and Keep on plugging for the education system.
If you are interested in this topic, you should read, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” (You can read a review on THISisCarpentry http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/2009/10/01/shop-class-as-soulcraft/ –editor’s note)
No association, I just picked it up last week to read again.
Also..one of my all time favorite personalities, writers, interviewers—the late, great Studs Terkel and his book–“Working–People Talk about What They Do All Day and How The Feel about What They Do”.
The must read heroes are: Carl Murray Bates- The Mason; and Nick Lindsay-Carpenter/Poet (his father was the late doctor and poet, Vachel Lindsay).
Read their stories and you will come away feeling a bit wistful; proud; honored and respectful of craft/art/building/integrity. Their IS room for all of us in this blue collar world–we just might need to feel more pride about who we are, as well as what we do……..and to heck with anyone else.
Also go to Mike Rowe’s website (Dirty Jobs/ Ford & Bounty paper towel tv ads)–just Google Mike Rowe—and see the video where he testifies before the US Congress about the rapidly dwindling stock of our replacements; the lack of educational opportunities for bright younger kids, etc, etc ,etc. Very good stuff on Mike’s website about this very same problem as outlined by John R.
Mike Rowe’s website:
http://www.mikeroweworks.com …watch the 8 minute/25 second speech he gives before a Senate committee chaired by Senaor Jay Rockefeller (My apologies…NOT the US Congress).
Also, Mike’s initiative called the National PR Campaign for Skilled Labor…he has an excellent website; great ongoing podcasts as well as a great blog community.
Thank you for your insights. As are far too many of your respondents, I am a senior (60) tradesman. I have always introduced myself as a builder and tradesman and still do so, I am happy about my work. As you mentioned, there is a lot of quiet satisfaction in seeing your (and your associates) work, providing comfort and enjoyment for the foreseeable future. However, back to the dark side. I started in construction as a child as my father was an architect and built our homes. When I was old enough we built several spec homes and I hired my high school buddies which was great for about a decade ($10.00 per hour! I’m rich!) but they went off on their own or etc. and I had to scramble for help. The straw that broke this camels back was when I signed on as an employer at my high schools work/study program. After several weeks of silence, finally, an excited and happy young man called and said he could start tomorrow ($10.00 per hour1 I’m rich!-think mid 70’s), he understood that he started as a grunt but looked forward to learning. He called the next morning and sadly told me that his mother said construction was too dangerous. How did we all survive? Perhaps it was the start of the trend you wrote of regarding perception vs. reality in regards to dangerous conditions? Since then I have worked with our hispanic brethren and I have seen their skills increase tenfold. I used to joke that I was training my replacements but that joke isn’t funny anymore. My helper now is 25 years old and has worked with us since he was in junior high, as his father was previously the lead carpenter (he lives in Missouri now and I miss him). I think I, and various other tradesman, plumbers and electricians and others, have been his vocational school. I realize that I have been fortunate to know Marco and his son Mynor as it took about 12 years of searching to find people such as they, I had to learn to speak Spanish- which for Mynor and his father is unnecessarily, as they speak English. I guess the point of this story is that I agree that the present state of affairs is unsustainable for our countries well being. My late father and I at one point developed a syllabus for a class that we would have taught at my old high school, that would have been a two track course, involving subjects leading to either the trades, building inspection and the like, or to college majors in architecture or engineering. We thought that this would ease the anxiety of parents who thought that a vocational course could lead to their daughters getting plumbers butt. Alas, the principal was enthusiastic but the school district was clueless. Perhaps it was a naive idea. I still believe it’s a good one though.
Great interview with John. Shop classes are good for everybody. They give you an apreciation for craftsmanship.
Trade school issues, the lack of industrial arts education and earning a descent living are all primary considerations to be sure and the scope of our questions and comments. For me however, it boils down to simple biology. The truth is, I’m simply not happy unless my brain and hands are working together. I simply must create and make things with my head and hands or I might as well be dead.
The funny thing is, I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE IN THIS COMPULSION. In fact I believe most human beings are genetically hardwired to pick up sticks and stones and stack them together (it just comes natural). As a species and certainly for tens of thousands of years, the interaction between the human brain and hands has been the key to our survival and the secret of our success.
Until we as humans, understand and accept this fact of life and provide meaningful and constructive outlets for this very special and uniquely human behavior, We WILL NEVER BE ALL WE CAN BE (nor will we be happy in our lessor, “cerebral-only” state). It is in our genes.
Why can’t Educators and other “Wise-Men” see this?
This is a national tragedy that we no longer encourage our youth to learn a trade. Many tradesmen will not only work in the trades but will go on to start companies that will employe others. I feel that the current opinion that one MUST have a college education and if you don’t you are a moron is detrimental to our society. Some of the smartest/most artistic guys I ever met were carpenters. And I say this from the point of view of a person with an advanced degree (physician).
Our current educational is failing. Those in charge of our schools need to realize that college is not for everyone. We need to train our young people so that they can be employed productive members of society. If the high schools taught our young people to be carpenters and machinists instead of “Movies as an Art Form”( a real class offered in my kids high school) I believe our youth and our country would be better prepared for the future. I know I would prefer my sons to be employed machinists than unemployed English Lit major with 100k of debt.
I completely agree that the goal John has is valid and true. But his logic as to the source of the problem is nuts. Sure there are stupid suits, but that hasn’t stopped shop classes. There are several (but certainly not enough) schools in Southern California where the shop classes are going on full strength with lots of support.
What can cut these classes is lack of money. There are not too many injuries from band or art classes but they are being cut across the country at just as fast a rate as the shop classes. There are no suits from parents saying “I’m suing because my child came home with paint on their hands!” Just doesn’t happen.
Here in California, we’ve had something like 19 prisons open up in the past 25 years and one state university. Despite that, the courts have demanded that thousands of prisoners be release because the conditions in the prisons are beyond terrible. We (citizens) eagerly vote in laws that require money but fail to tax ourselves to pay for what we vote for.
As a country, WE (parents) have been pushing our kids into college focused classes and if there are only so many hours and we want our kids to take Advanced Placement (whatever), that also limits the number of kids taking shop (or art or band) classes. We don’t say “my kids going to be a carpenter,” rather we say “my kids going to be a doctor!”
I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is the principal of the local high school. I asked her if the threat of a legal suit ever made her consider dropping the wood shop class the school has. She said never. it’s only an issue of money.
You want shop classes? Art classes? Band? Pay for them.