The Working Waterfront

Home improvement, youth improvement

The trades are a wide open, lucrative career path

Tom Groening
Posted 2021-10-08
Last Modified 2021-10-08

I’m a big fan of home improvement TV shows and especially of what is the first of its kind, the PBS program This Old House. I never miss an episode, and even watch the previous projects when they are re-run.

I particularly like the spin-off show, Ask This Old House, which features the crew making house calls. That show features “regular folks” making tweaks to their homes, and they are houses that are much more modest than the big ticket projects the original show tackles.

The project featured many inner-city tradespeople, most of whom were people of color.

This Old House began on WGBH in Boston in 1979 and went national on PBS the following year. The franchise made the original episodes available for viewing a year or so ago, and of course I streamed and watched every one. That first project was an essentially abandoned house in Dorchester, purchased for less than $20,000.

For its 40th anniversary, the show returned to Dorchester to renovate a triple-decker damaged in a fire. Along with the regular TOH crew, the project featured many inner-city tradespeople, most of whom were people of color.

The show has made a concerted effort in recent years to underscore the need to fill a growing void of carpenter, electrician, plumber, landscaper, and mason jobs. The average age in many of these trades is well into the 50s.

TOH has offered apprenticeships on the show, and featured several programs that introduce young adults to the trades and begin to train them for work.

On the recent Dorchester project, the host stopped to interview some of the young people working on the house through a program called YouthBuild. One young woman—maybe in her mid-20s—explained that she had been working as a security guard but thought training in a trade would provide a better future.

Now, this is me projecting based on very few facts, but I imagined her having graduated high school, still living with her parents, maybe working a late-shift security job at a healthcare facility and getting by fairly well. To be hired as a security guard she would have had a clean criminal record, so she was someone who played by the rules.

Because YouthBuild placed a different pathway before her, this woman’s life may take a very different course. She may become an electrician, working for someone then perhaps starting her own business. She certainly would earn far more than she would as a security guard, so she could buy a home and start a family. And she would have a fulfilling work life.

This is a desired outcome we all should cheer.

I was powerfully struck by the importance of these nonprofits and what they offer. No YouthBuild, and she probably stays in low-wage jobs.

Have you had to hire a plumber, electrician, or carpenter lately? Even pre-pandemic, there was a shortage. Five years ago, my plumber told me he stopped taking new customers. I’ve heard stories about homeowners on islands waiting months for tradespeople. It’s a national problem.

You’ve probably heard people denigrate a liberal arts education as part of the discussion of this skills gap, but that’s an oversimplification. Of course our children should pursue post-secondary education. It’s just that we need to add more options.

Along with the wide-open trades field, technician-type jobs continue to grow. Can you imagine trying to do a tune-up on your car today? And with we baby boomers hitting old age, we rely on the person doing the CT scan, the physical therapy, and the blood test to be skilled.

The house I live in is a log-cabin kit which I built—with lots of help from family, friends, and neighbors—and it remains, more than 25 years after breaking ground, unfinished. I am fond of saying, “If I had $15,000 and a month off, I could…”

Every year, the dollar figure has increased, and as I approach my mid-60s, the timeframe also grows.

My DIY projects hew closer to another TV show, Home Improvement, in which the hapless host, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, invariably destroys something and gets injured in the process.

But I do love to work on my home.

When I was in high school, my mother would sometimes let me skip school and take a bus to join my grandfather and work with him on plumbing jobs. He’d probably be shaking his head in dismay at my ineptitude if he saw me working on my house, but I plug away at it.

We built in 1994. Is the house old enough to persuade the TOH crew to come help?

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be contacted at