Masonry Competition Underscores Future Skills Shortage

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Mark Urycki / StateImpact Ohio

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 the 10th Annual High School Masonry Competition held at Buchtel High School in Akron, 40 kids from around Ohio and a few from Pennsylvania competed in a bricklaying contest for thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and prizes.

The students were wearing identical yellow t-shirts, brandishing levels and trowels to build square corners and perfectly plumb walls.

The host was 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," he said. "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.”

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.

“I always tell them they’re going to be in demand," said New Philadelphia's Todd Bonvechio, a masonry teacher at Buckeye Career Center.  "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," she said, adding that her son has already been contracted to build homes for some family members. "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."

Sixteen-year-old Marcus Cunningham wasn't competing, but helped out by mixing cement.

“I like it," he said. "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."

During the competition, the  juniors and seniors continued 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 said it’s a tough three hours.

“Some of them that are almost done," he said. "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?  But they’re learning.”

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," he said.  "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,’" she said. "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.

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