Mike Rowe, the former host of “Dirty Jobs” and a passionate supporter of the trades in America, has lent his celebrity and talent to back the students of the Ottawa (Ill.) Township High School building trades program who walked out of class when it was announced that the program and its teacher were being axed. In response to the students’ protest, the school administration–who received a 5-percent pay raise in the same school board session that resulted in the decision to close the program–suspended the students and banned the seniors from attending their prom.
The community has rallied behind the students and teacher, staging protests in the street and on Facebook and calling on the board to change its decision and save the building trades program. On Saturday, the Ottawa Times reported that the board says it’s not happening.
Shortly after the news broke, Rowe wrote a brief piece on his Facebook page, saying:
“I like that these kids are willing to suffer the consequences of speaking their minds. I like that the local trade unions are supporting them. I like that the press is covering it. But mostly, I like that somebody is standing up for the skilled trades. Finally. In a place where it really matters.”
Then he surprised the community by releasing the video below on his website in support of the students. Because of Rowe, it looks like the trade students of Ottawa and the scrapping of building trades programs throughout America are getting national attention.
A thousand cuts
Ottawa, Ill. is a small town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Perched at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, Ottawa is a historic, blue collar community of about 18,000 residents. It has a beautiful downtown and central park, boundless civic pride and a deep heritage in river and railroad transportation, agriculture and the trades. Its tourist brochures hail the city as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate. But to the people who grow up there, the success of its industrial arts and building trades program means more. This world-class program, which had survived even as the trades have been stripped from the public curricula throughout the United States, is going dark.
LIke everything else Ottawa and similar small communities have lost through the decades, from its once thriving downtown retail base to its position as a major waterway transportation hub, Ottawa is now being stripped of a source of education, empowerment and pride that has kept young people engaged in its economy and civic life. It’s another example of the slow death by a thousand cuts of America’s small cities and towns. The local economy cannot provide the tax revenue required to support its services. In response, programs like the high school building trades program, which provides a pathway for students to find and create jobs and become tax payers, get cut.
I used to live in Ottawa. I was the editor of a small newspaper there. In that role, I got to know the city’s residents and its business and civic leaders. I always found Ottawa residents and leaders to be be passionate in their desire to see their community succeed and innovative in their plans to to make that success reality. That’s why it’s so saddening to see this program shut down.
Among the wonderful people and great potential in Ottawa, I also saw a huge problem: the continuing flight of the city’s young adults after they graduated high school and faced limited local opportunities for careers, fellowship and entertainment. Of those who wanted to stay, the skilled trades offered a solid path to a decent living. As Rowe said, in Ottawa, the trades matter.
In Ottawa, I know tradesmen who are single handedly rejuvenating historic downtown structures through hard work and innovative thinking. They are putting their own sweat and money into repurposing these tired buildings into dynamic new businesses. I know others who raise money for local programs to enrich Ottawa’s cultural life and promote civic pride. It is because of these tradesmen that Ottawa throws the best 4th of July celebration and fireworks display in its county, entirely funded through donations.
And I know many who make a good living in the trades.
Work is not something to escape
Many of us who read woodworking blogs, watch woodworking videos, chat on woodworking forums and spend our disposable income on woodworking tools are not tradesmen. We are white collar professionals who pursue woodworking as a hobby and avocation. Many of us daydream about making a living at “the craft.” Our romanticism can seem pretty condescending to real carpenters who have to work as hard getting the next job as they do on the job. They work fast to build things other people need, while we suffer over every joint while building what we want.
As a nation, we have devalued the trades, and we are paying a price for it. “Professionals” have always looked down on people who did Rowe’s dirty jobs. But starting in the 1950s, when marketers sold our parents and grandparents on the story that success equalled convenience and leisure, this trend has accelerated and the trades have declined. From a country of makers, we became a culture in which “making it” meant not having to know how to make things at all.
Or fix things.
We actually turned ineptitude into a badge of honor.
I was raised in a blue-collar family. My father was a mechanic and a carpenter and there was nothing romantic about it. The man washed his hands with gasoline. I was fascinated by what he did and wanted nothing more than to help him work. But I was told from childhood that I would be the one to “escape” that life. I would be the first to attend college and “make something of myself.” I did. Now I am a white collar professional who works with ideas. I like what I do, and it provides a good life for my family. But what do I to relax? I leave my desk and go to the basement and work with my hands.
As part of my grooming to “escape” the trades, I was sent to a college-prep high school. I didn’t have the opportunity to take shop class. It took me until my forties, when I decided to build a table because I couldn’t afford to buy one, to reconnect with my heritage of making things, and now I love it. Not everyone who attends a building trades program goes on to do the work professionally. But these programs teach valuable skills regardless, even if only to teach budding consumers to recognize quality and understand value in the made things they buy.
In Ottawa, it did more. It provided a way of life. It provided workers for Habitat for Humanity projects. It provided a sense of pride. Now Ottawa will have one less reason to be proud.
My training as a journalist has taught me that few stories have a right side and a wrong side. There are economic realities at work here. If a school district is $3 million in the hole, then something has to go. Federal education policy doles out funding to schools based on academic scores, not the dedication of its teachers, students’ facility in a trade, their happiness or the quality of life they attain. Federal funding is not based on local needs. It is a formula, and schools go against that formula at their peril.
So I don’t believe this is a simple story where the students are heroes and the school board is evil. I believe we live in a complex society that shows what it values by where it puts its money and what it teaches its children.
And what it doesn’t.
>> The mikeroweWORKS Foundation promotes hard work and supports the skilled trades. Visit the organization’s website to learn more.
>> Sow your support for the Ottawa Township High School Industrial Arts Program by liking their Facebook page.