Skilled trades lure young artisans to alternative career paths
Posted on August 29, 2011
Skilled trades like welding are a creative outlet for those looking to make a career working with their hands.
There’s an old-timey feel, a genuineness, to FoundRe, a small woodworking business.
Handmade wood frames and architectural and decorative pieces fill the small gallery/showroom in Chicago, an uncontrived and utilitarian space that could belong to some 1960s or ’70s-era craftsman.
But FoundRe is new – it opened in May – and the owner, Raun Meyn, is just 30.
Meyn is just one example of young people around the country who have turned away from a white-collar career choice and has returned to what can loosely be called “the skilled trades.” For multiple reasons – a need to create, interest in collaborating with like-minded people, an aversion to the rat race, an opportunity to make a good living – the less- taken career path has a growing appeal.
“As you go through college, you find (working in an office) is not avoidable,” said Meyn, who studied graphic design at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. “You’ll still end up in a cubicle doing graphic design.”
FoundRe was an attractive alternative.
“I enjoy working with my hands and making physical things way more than I enjoy looking at a computer,” Meyn said.
Meyn isn’t alone. There’s a group of seven young men who started a Chicago art and design collective and go by the name The Post Family. And The Butcher & Larder, a Chicago butcher shop that opened in January, employs a number of under-30 workers.
“I’ve worked in offices and sat in front of computers, and I’ve stood on my feet in restaurants for 14 hours,” said Danielle Kaplan, 22, who specializes in pates and charcuterie at The Butcher & Larder. “This is much better. It helps to enjoy what you’re doing.”
That need to escape the confines of the cubicle is echoed by the guys in The Post Family. The group has been together since 2007, producing art using old design techniques such as letterpress and screen printing, as well as working in the fields of photography, Web design and illustrating.
“Between all of us, we can achieve any task,” said 25-year-old Chad Kouri, one of the members.
Kouri said he was drawn to this career path for several reasons, not the least being the 12 to 14 hours a day he was spending at a computer – his skills include collage-based illustration and fine art work – creating things that could disappear with the click of a button.
“I think (it was) the combination of the digital age and everything seeming too ephemeral,” he said. “I’ve had to get tangible again. Newspapers are smaller, there are fewer books. I want an opportunity to have a beautiful piece in your hand.”
Post Family members have similar backgrounds, “but different styles and passions and skills” that they share, Kouri said. “If I know screen printing, then everybody knows screen printing,” he said.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., Jesse Levison started Gold Teeth Brooklyn, a boutique stationery company. Alex Trendelman, Levison’s boyfriend, skipped college and took up welding at trade school; his company, SquareBuilt, produces custom-made bicycles. In San Francisco, Jeff Canham left his art director job at a magazine, apprenticed at a sign-painting shop for five years, then struck out on his own.
“The people I share my studio space with have all had similar career paths,” Canham said. “Not necessarily corporate jobs, but other paths they’ve abandoned. They’re furniture builders and surfboard makers.”
Levison, 28, said there’s a definite movement afoot: “Everyone is sort of taking it upon themselves to do their thing.”
Levison studied printmaking and screen printing at the University of Florida. She moved to New York shortly after graduating five years ago.
“I interned at galleries, worked at offices and desks all day, and really wasn’t feeling it,” she said. “It was boring, not my thing. I wasn’t making a dent.”
She started Gold Teeth in her home with a friend three years ago, doing screen printing. They hit the bricks, going to “cute” stores and pitching their wares. Slowly, they caught on. Her list of clients includes stores across the U.S.
“I’m definitely getting a lot out of it,” she said. “It’s really a lot of work. It’s not like I clock in and clock out. I’m on all the time. It took a good year and a half to make any money, to start to see a payoff a little bit.”
The trend toward the skilled trades is a welcome one, according to ManpowerGroup, one of the largest firms in the employment services industry. In the company’s annual Talent Shortage Survey in 2010 and 2011, the most difficult jobs to fill in the U.S. were in the skilled trades.
“The U.S. has the biggest skilled trade deficit” in the world, said Anne Edmunds, a regional director for Manpower.
Some countries are importing workers to fill the gap. Norway, she said, has been hiring hundreds of butchers from overseas. But the pendulum may be swinging back.
“It is funny that trade school, in this creative world I’m part of, is a good thing,” Levison said. “It didn’t used to be that way. Now everybody wants to start their own furniture company (or) reclaimed furniture place.”
– William Hageman
27 Aug 2011
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