High School Masonry Contest Underscores Vocational Skills

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The days of making ashtrays for high school shop class are over. And the classes now offered go well beyond the old vocational education models.

At Buchtel High School in Akron, 40 kids from around Ohio and a few from Pennsylvania are competing in a bricklaying contest for thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and prizes.. The students are wearing identical yellow t-shirts, brandishing levels and trowels to build square corners and perfectly plumb walls. The host is Buchtel instructor Matt Simpson who can watch but not coach his students. It’s both fun and a potential career path.

“ A lot of these kids are kids who know that they’re not going to be going to college. So this is avenue that can get them straight into the industry as an apprentice or a laborer. So they have to have another way than do minimum wage.”

So who’s the team to beat?

“Actually there’s a female, I believe from Tiffin Ohio, that is a senior this year who won the state competition as a junior. We're out to get her.”

The blocks and bricks and much of the materials the students are using have been donated by companies who want to cultivate a new generation of trained craftsmen. Simpson says the average age of a mason today is 55 which means they will start retiring soon. But it’s still a bit of a hard sell to interest kids in an ancient skill. Todd Bonvechio teaches masonry at Buckeye Career Center in New Philadelphia.

“I always tell them They’re going to be in demand. They’re going to be able to command hundreds of dollars an hour because no one is getting in the field anymore. All the construction fields, besides welding – that’s a popular program in our school right now because of the oil wells- but it’s just tough. It’s tough getting students.”

It was a surprise to Raquel Byrd when her son Miller, who had never worked with his hands, decided to take a masonry course. Now he’s in the competition.

”We were looking at a business major because his mathematics are over the top – his scores. And its always been his favorite subject. SO we had no clue he was going to work with his hands. We thought it was going to be all brains. So yeah this is a shock, but pleasant.

URYCKI “Is it nice having someone in the family who can actually fix something?

BYRD “Oh yeah, he’s already contracted to build homes, build homes for the family. We’ve already got our bid in.”

16 year old Marcus Cunningham is not competing today, but he’s helping out by mixing cement.

“I like it. Good trade to do. You don’t gotta go to college to do. You can do it once you’re 18, graduate, get in a union, and get good money. Take care of your family. “ skills

URYCKI: Is that your plan?

“Yes, but I play football too. So that [masonry] is my backup plan. That’s plan B.”

Behind Marcus the juniors and seniors continue working in silence, with several kinds of bricks and foundation blocks. They’ll be judged on 10 categories: including how plumb their work is, how square, how level, the corners, the measurement, the design, and so on. Instructor Todd Bonvechio says it’s a tough three hours.

“Some of them that are almost done, their quality is lacking. And these here, he’s doing a nice job and he’s doing a nice job. But the one in the back is almost done but it’s not correct. Leaning a little to the left? Laughs. But they’re learning so.”
One student who competed last year is Darnell Hubbard. Now he’s in his first year as a union apprentice. He’s already worked on a new hotel in Akron and likes the feeling of accomplishment.

“Just riding down the street and seeing like different buildings and projects. Like, I actually did work on that. And it’s going to be there a very long time”

And in fact, the skill of working with stone and brick goes back millennia. That connection to the past reminded one of the judges, architect Mary O’Connor, of a story when she lived in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art brought an ancient temple from Egypt to reconstruct in the museum.

“It came as a bunch of stones. and ‘How do we put this together?’ My friend said “leave it to me.” And he got these Italian masons who knew how to read the masons’ marks. It was the same masons’ marks. They put it together. So that kind of continuity in a trade – where does that exist?

The teachers and students at this competition are hoping that ancient tradition will continue to exist in Ohio.
The winners:

Juniors
3rd place - 865 out of 1,000 points Mitch Melikant from Admiral Peary Ebensburg, PA.
2nd place - 868 out of 1,000 points Ben Gibson from Maplewood Career Center
1st place - 914 out of 1,000 points Coleman Long from Admiral Peary Ebensburg, PA.

Seniors
3rd place - 850 out of 1,000 points Julianna Reed from Sentinel Career Center
2nd place - 880 out of 1,000 points Taylor Stubbs from Maplewood Career Center
1st place - 940 out of 1,000 points Tyler Flinn from Buchtel CLC
 

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