Sam McKelvey and Alice French – executive director and director of education – of the Menokin Foundation in Warsaw, VA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their preservation project, and the Foundation’s many services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Sam and Alice’s respective backgrounds in history, preservation, and related fields, and how working at Menokin marries all of their interests in one place
  • The history of the property and surrounding lands first populated by the local Rappahannock people, as well as the Algonquin origins of the word “Menokin”
  • The history of the house itself – including its distinction as home built for declaration signer Francis Lightfoot Lee in 1769, and function as the center of a large tobacco plantation – and its unique journey from neglected home, to an actual ruin, to a unique preservation project that will maintain its current condition in perpetuity
  • The history of the Menokin Foundation and how the Glass House Project will allow continued exploration of and education about colonial building practices, unlike any other extant colonial structure or house museum
  • The ongoing evolution of inclusive narratives and storytelling at the site – of the indigenous Rappahannocks and the enslaved laborers – and the narratives’ ongoing development by bringing actual descendants into the conversation
  • Multi-armed approaches to preservation at the site beyond the Glass House Project, such as preservation trades workshops, kayaking tours, educational webinars, and on-site immersive experiences
  • Challenges and trends in preservation, including staying relevant as priorities and cultural landscapes irrevocably change, by evoking emotional connections to history through “dynamic preservation”

 

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Contact information – general inquiry or specific staff

Sam and Alice encourage visitor engagement in many ways. Most of the site is outdoors – 500 acres, in fact – and can be visited directly with safe social-distancing measures, and several options are listed here. You can also “visit” virtually here. In addition, they always welcome membership and donations

 

LABOR DAY although it was yesterday, we feel it’s timely to discuss it. Now known as the unofficial end of Summer, a time for store sales, or an extra long weekend for some. But the history and meaning behind the day represent the struggles of laborers in the American workforce, and collective issues that are just as relevant today as they were over a hundred years ago. It’s important that we preserve the history of Labor Day and continue to support our laborers. Read on for a brief overview of national and Pennsylvania labor history, and links to Pennsylvania labor history points of interest.

Illustration from Tribute to Labor Day newspaper article – 1901 edition of the Desert Evening News, Great Salt Lake City, Utah. Image Source: Library of Congress.

 

The History Behind Labor Day

The U.S. Department of Labor’s fairly neutral overview of Labor Day reports that the holiday is the result of years of dedicated efforts by members of the Labor Movement to establish fair wages and work hours. The first official Labor Day celebration (which was actually a demonstration) occurred September 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City, including a parade followed by a festival. This had a cascade effect. Subsequently, grass roots efforts by laborers and small unions led to initial ordinances being put in place in various municipalities by the mid-1880s. The first state law declaring Labor Day a legal holiday was passed in Oregon in 1887, and several other states followed suit. June 28, 1894, then-President Grover Cleveland officially signed the act into law making the first Monday of September a legal national holiday. 

“According to legend, Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. McGuire believed that Labor Day should ‘be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.’” 

U.S. Department of Labor

 

What the report by the U.S. Department of Labor fails to mention is the significant unrest, violence, and suffering that occurred for laborers before this holiday was created. Laborers endured 12-hour or more workdays, worked 7-days a week, had low wages, no benefits, and unsafe working conditions. Child labor was also prolific. Most sources claim that the official legalization of this holiday was a political move made to appease labor unrest. The PBS New Desk asserted that the catalyst for this political move was the Pullman Strike of 1894. The workers protested the simultaneous drop in wages and maintenance of rents following a decline in sleeping car orders (due to nationwide economic depression). The domino effect of this initial rebellion included nationwide boycotts of trains carrying Pullman cars, by railroad workers. Some of these protesters pillaged and burned the cars. Railroad executives were concerned and mail trains were delayed. President Cleveland’s initial response of declaring the strike a Federal crime and deploying troops to break it culminated in heightened violence and several deaths. The strike was declared ended via injunction July 20, 1894, several strike leaders were arrested, unions were disbanded, and striking Pullman employees were rehired on the condition that they signed a pledge not to unionize again.

Although it appears that the powers that be were ultimately victorious at the expense of the common working man, the strike’s handling was viewed poorly by much of the public. Some say to appease the public and garner political favor (although this source indicates Cleveland had little to gain by doing so), President Grover Cleveland quickly signed the act into law a few days after the strike’s declared end.

 

Pennsylvania’s Involvement in the Labor Movement

The Explore PA History website provides a thorough overview of Pennsylvania’s particular involvement in the labor movement. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society also includes a detailed timeline of Labor History in Pennsylvania. This history is summarized subsequently. Philadelphia printers staged the U.S.’s first strike for higher wages in 1786. Some of the most notable Pennsylvania industries in the 19th century – mining, steel, and railroads – involved very low wages, extremely long hours, and limited benefits so laborers in these industries were well-known for their unions and strikes. The Depression of the 1930s also caused hardship for Pennsylvania workers, especially in the steel industry, leading to an influx of union members. The Cold War period’s increased international competition and the subsequent deindustrialization of the United States caused significant job loss and lower standards of living for many Pennsylvania workers.

Tangible evidence of Pennsylvania’s industrial and trade contributions are existent today in their original locations (some still in-use) and through museums. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society includes links to various sites, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission includes a link to the industrial heritage trail, with museums of industry (here), and The State Museum of Pennsylvania includes several items paying homage to Pennsylvania industry (many of which can be viewed virtually, here, here, ). 

 

IN SUMMARY:

Work has shifted significantly in the U.S. over the past two hundred years from the industrial and skilled-trades to the white-collar jobs that we see today (related as well to the skilled labor shortage we’ve outlined before). Union memberships have significantly declined, and labor concerns have shifted to issues of health care, equitable wages, retirement, etc. Essentially, the players have changed but the game is essentially the same. It is incumbent upon us as a society not to forget the meaning behind Labor Day, to visit and read about historical industrial and labor movement sites and objects, to continue to fight for worker’s rights, and to support our local laborers as much as we can. In this way, we preserve our history as well as our society.

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU OR A FAMILY MEMBER HAVE A PERSONAL STORY RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT? OR, DO YOU KNOW OF ANY HISTORICAL SITES OR OBJECTS RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT THAT YOU’D LIKE TO MENTION? 

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

 

Bob Yapp – noted preservationist, teacher, and consultant – joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss his extensive work and experiences in the field of preservation. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Bob’s background in preservation, from being a school-aged child whose father taught him what it means to be the steward of an old home, to buying and preserving his first home as a high school student, and eventually earning a syndicated television role on PBS in the 1990s
  • His continued focus on hands-on preservation and restoration coupled with consultation, teaching, and project management 
  • His mission to save traditional artisan trades via national workshops and his Belvedere School for Hands-On Preservation
  • The ways in which preservation is economically – “preservation doesn’t cost-it pays” – and environmentally beneficial 
  • Although preservation is very unique and made of a diverse workforce, the field needs to do more to bring in people of color, and to be more accessible to the average owner of old homes

 

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Email – [email protected]

Phone – 217-474-6052

Bob believes that apprenticeships and trade skills are essential – you can visit his website for more information about his Belevedere School for Hands-On Preservation and national workshops here and here.

If you’re interested in consultation with Bob, you can visit his website and click the “consult” tab.

Choosing a contractor with the right mix of skills and experience to work on your historical building can be a daunting experience.  Especially considering the potential for permanent damage to the historical fabric of your building, you need to select a contractor who: is well-versed in historical products and materials; can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that create your building’s unique characteristics; understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions; and values preservation of our built history as much as you do.

Many of you have likely had work completed on your historical home or building. Consequently, many of you have also likely felt the impact of labor shortages in the construction industry. This article focuses on the skilled labor shortages and how they affect your project. The skilled labor shortage in the trades has been a major concern for over a decade, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2008. In March 2019, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) described the shortage – based on a survey of its members – like this: 

“More than four out of five builders expect to face serious challenges regarding the cost and availability of labor in 2019 … Just 13% of builders cited labor issues as an important concern in 2011, with the rate steadily rising over the ensuing years and peaking at 82% in each of the last three years (2017–2019).” [NAHBNow]

The number of shortages vary based on skill-specific trades, but broad shortages are higher in recent years. This presents a conundrum to leaders in the construction industry, but also to you, the homeowners. We have attempted to outline the breadth of the issues as well as possible solutions and strategies to cope, both from a societal stand-point and an individual homeowner perspective.

If you aren’t interested in how we got here, specific action items for hiring a contractor and dealing with the labor shortage are here

 

 

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WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABOR?

We already know that there is a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry. The question is: How did we get here?

  • Historical contributions. Clayton DeKorne provides a detailed overview of some of the likely factors that contributed to the shortage. For example, he noted that in early America, especially prior to the Revolution, the predominant view of skilled laborers in the construction field was a venerable one, and these craftsman enjoyed involvement in a cooperative community of workers, as well as esteem by and support from society at large. A prime example of this, as noted by DeKorne, is The Carpenter’s Company, the oldest trade guild in America. It held its first meetings in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, right among major centers for government and business. The building and the guild both hosted and provided for government and business in substantial ways. As time passed, the predominant views in America about construction and skilled labor culminated in Charles Ham’s book, Mind and Hand, which viewed industrial arts as a necessary precursor to children’s moral and intellectual development, rather than simply vocational training. DeKorne reports that another characteristic of these historical time periods was that traditional craftsman often passed skills on to their children, maintaining and ensuring traditional skills through the generations. However, as innovations in technology emerged, including “retail product manufacturing,” the need for skilled craftsman declined as the press for manufacturing workers increased. This included the children and youth who previously learned trades alongside their parents. But by 1917, child labor was increasingly frowned upon. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was a federal law passed with the intention of education reform, triggered in large part by concerns related to ethical issues and lack of safety for children in the workforce. DeKorne notes this Act, while beneficial in limiting child labor, was a driving force behind the fall of vocational education in America. Although this bill provided significant federal funding to educational avenues, including vocational education, it set into motion policies and practices that eventually resulted in a distinct separation between college-prep and vocational education, the educational tracks we see to this day. The unforeseen and possibly unintended consequences of this have been a class or social divide, or at least a perception of one, that is still present.

 

  • Recent issues. McKinsey and Company wrote an article that reports that there was a 70% decrease in new housing projects from 2009-2011, resulting in many in the construction industry leaving the workforce, following the 2008 recession. In the years since, the demand for skilled laborers in the construction industry has significantly increased as construction needs have increased. However, workers are not filling those gaps.  DeKorne and homeadvisor.com conclude that a large part of the growing shortage is because of younger generations’ negative perceptions of the industry, including deeply-held beliefs that trade skills are associated with a lower or under-served-class of people. They have held onto the belief that a 4-year degree or college is more respectable, per the standards developed by the educational system throughout most of the twentieth century (noted earlier), and schools have phased out vocational programs and encouraged students to focus on college, perpetuating the idea that it is somehow better. This also reduces students’ exposure to the construction field as a potential option. Many of these people are more interested in innovative, technological careers. These problems are compounded by aging workers retiring from the field. 

 

HOW CAN WE ADDRESS THE SHORTAGE?

There are several things that experts suggest that leaders and professionals in the educational, vocational, and construction fields do, as well as suggestions for homeowners like you.

  • For professionals. Homeadvisor.com proposes that professionals make the most of the maker movement and foster people’s interest by offering alternatives to a 4-year-degree, harness their motivation to be entrepreneurs (since many surveyed indicate owning a business is a big motivator, and create mentorships and apprenticeships.  They also recommend labor automation, hiring temps, using overtime with current staff, and expanding hours of staff availability.

 

  • For homeowners. If you read most of this article prior to this section, or if you’re already abreast of the issues of labor shortage in the industry, you might be feeling discouraged as to any possible immediate solutions. However, we have compiled a list of things that you can do as a homeowner to navigate this issue, from our experience and that of other sources (Homeadvisor.com, thisoldhouse.com, Jon Gorey at realestate.boston.com, Marni Jameson of The Mercury News, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation).   
    • SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE – call before problems happen so you are more likely to get things addressed when they are problematic. This also builds rapport with contractors and laborers.  
      • HAVE A MAINTENANCE PLAN – find examples and ideas here
      • BE FLEXIBLE – Due to uncontrollable aspects of the current circumstances, it’s best to accept them as they are and be flexible with them. You can do this by allowing more time for projects to be completed, considering simplifying your projects, or moving your own schedule around to match that of contractors’ schedules. Also remember that subcontractors often prefer to work with general contractors or well-known companies, so they may not consider small home projects to be a priority. Consider contacting someone you have an existing relationship with for smaller projects, or a handyman service that specializes in smaller projects.
      • BE AWARE OF COST – The reality is that this shortage will impact the cost of your project. As the demand for highly skilled workers increases (especially for workers who have specialized skills in restoration/preservation rather than general remodeling) and the supply of highly skilled workers decreases, the demand on these contractors and workers also increases (usually beyond capacity) which will drive up the costs. 
      • HAVE A LIST OF PROS – Create a list of people with whom you build relationships. If they know you are a reliable customer, you are more likely to find them to be reliable professionals. They may be more likely to be flexible with you compared to unfamiliar, possibly demanding customers. 
      • DEFER TO A NATIONAL ASSOCIATION – NAHB and the National Association for the Remodeling Industry have pro-finder tools that will help you discover professionals in your area. Ensure that the contractors have experience in historical restoration and/or preservation.
      • DO YOUR OWN BACKGROUND CHECKS – High demand in a limited labor market is a breeding ground for less-than-satisfactory work from certain contractors, who may take advantage of the situation and be less reliable because they feel they have the freedom to do so. Also, many contractors are desperate for subcontractors and no longer requiring screenings, allowing this to fall to the homeowner. Make sure they are a licensed contractor, ask for proof of insurance, call references, and check out websites like court records to make sure no suits or complaints are filed against them. Particularly, make sure they do not have numerous claims against them regarding workmanship or breach of contract.
      • DON’T SETTLE – Although this checklist may seem daunting, don’t settle for sub-par work or possibly unsavory workers, despite all of the seeming barriers. 

IN SUMMARY: 

Unfortunately, even choosing a reputable contractor is not always the solution you would assume it would be and much onus is put on the homeowner or property owner as a result. Recently, I saw a job posting for a large, well-established contractor advertising 3 positions: construction site manager, field superintendent, and entry-level field assistant. The fact that they have the 3 levels of position available does not surprise me. What shocked me was the fact that they were advertising that they do NOT complete or require drug screens or background checks. I can tell from personal experience  that the number of applicants dramatically decreases when you add those qualifiers to the help-wanted ad. This concerns me not only from a safety standpoint, but also from a customer service angle. Someone who is abusing drugs will not be reliable (drug abuse is a huge problem in the construction industry). Just having a body show up is not the same as someone who is there to work (not to mention the liability implications). I am not opposed to second chances in regard to background checks; depending on the circumstances I would consider hiring someone with a blemish on their record, but I would want to know about it and evaluate it from a risk-assessment standpoint. As some contractors are lowering their standards to hire workers, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the labor force and the type of screening that is completed. 

In addition, you can hire for speed, cost, or quality choosing 2 of the 3 priorities, but the 3 cannot be accomplished on the same project. One question we are often asked is: what is the best way to find a reliable skilled contractor who won’t be too expensive? My answer is: It is hard to find an inexpensive skilled carpenter because the cost of labor goes up as skills are learned, and you are paying for the knowledge that has been previously acquired so they are not making expensive mistakes on your property. As a strategy, I would look at what work is unskilled/semi-skilled (it typically follows the 80/20 rule for window restoration, for example). With minimal training, you can either self-perform or pay a college student to do the unskilled work, bringing the skilled carpenter in for the repair work without having to pay a high hourly rate for the unskilled portion of the project. 

Ultimately, there is a lot required of you as a homeowner to find the right contractor and skilled laborers, but it will be worth it in the end.