Documentary filmmaker Richard Yeagley (left) jump-starts the conversation: How do we rebuild our eroding blue-collar workforce?

Documentary filmmaker Richard Yeagley. (Photo credits: Taco.)


I love documentaries.

Sit me down in front of The History Channel and I won’t bother you for hours. Make it a documentary about the “family business” and you get true inspiration.

A young fellow named Richard Yeagley has produced an amazing film called “The Tradesmen, Making an Art of Work.” It’s a 53-minute glimpse into the hopes, dreams, struggles, pride and humanity of plumbers, carpenters, stonemasons and painters.

Managers at Cranston, R.I.-based Taco were so impressed with the soon-to-be-classic film by Yeagley that they shared the film with others at Johnson & Wales University on the evening of Oct. 5.  

Taco invited a capacity gathering of 160 tradespeople and professionals to view the film. An all-star panel of experts featured Yeagley, contractor and columnist Dan Foley, hydronics author and man-about-town Dan Holohan and Taco owner and president John White Jr.

A panel of experts discuss the state of blue-collar workers today (left to right): hydronics author Dan Holohan, filmmaker Richard Yeagley, Taco instructor John Barba, Taco owner and president John White Jr., and contractor Dan Foley. The documentary film, "The Tradesmen, Making an Art of Work," was the focal point of the discussion.

Some Observations

After seeing the film, there were several comments about the value of promoting the trades to young people. A couple of trade school instructors said they’ve actually been discouraged from recruiting by high school guidance counselors.

“Everyone’s telling these kids they have to go to college when they may do better getting into the trades,” said one guest. “My guess is guidance counselors and school administrators are paid more and get better jobs if they have a track record of sending lots of kids to college. Sending kids into the trades doesn’t pretty-up their resumes.”

Foley said while his college education has served him well, it didn’t prepare him for what he needed to know in the field. “I started as a helper after graduating from Virginia Tech with an engineering degree,” he noted. “I thought I knew it all, but found very, very quickly I didn’t know anything.”

The film did a wonderful job of emphasizing the skill and intelligence required to do our jobs and in recognizing the importance of the work. But some guests felt the film missed one important mark.

“I wish it had shown the upside of the business,” said Maine contractor Jim Godbout. “You can make a great living in the trades. I wish that had been shown more.”

John Perry of Advanced Comfort Systems in Rhode Island said the fact that only three guests were under 30 was a bit of a shock. “That was a real eye-opener,” he said. “Pretty soon there’s going to be no one to do the work, but the work is still going to be there and will need to be done.”

And if you were there and looking around, you would have seen the entire audience nodding their heads knowingly when Baltimore plumber Chris Jensen, one of the tradesmen featured in the film, put a voice on what many have long felt.

“Many of the lawyer types and people like that,” Jensen said, “they kinda’ look down on us. But I just have to laugh because they have no idea who I am.”

Another attendee commented: “I share the opinion that younger people need to be exposed to this; after all, they’ll play the critical role in shaping the future of our country. I’ll even take it a step further to say that, over the past several decades, the higher ed community has misled America. What value do they add when, after a $60,000 or $80,000 or $150,000 degree, their grads are looking for work, getting minimum wage to pay student loans . . . or especially when the loans go into default?”

Add the erosion of manufacturing in this country and you have the makings of a perfect storm for our highly skilled but badly beaten, blue-collar core. Americans - especially our younger people - need to acquire an entirely new appreciation for the trades. Our high school guidance counselors need to be on board with this. As a single group, they’re as involved in the overall problem as any.

“The screening was more than I could have hoped for,” Yeagley said. “The conversations I had with individuals after the event and during my tour of Taco the next day were thought-provoking and candid. There seemed to be such a diversity of life experience and opinion from the audience members. As a filmmaker, it really makes you feel like you accomplished something when so many people could relate to so many different aspects about the documentary.”

Yeagley’s interests are on track. We need to ask ourselves this question: What can we do, individually and corporately, to contribute to resuscitating America’s dying blue-collar workforce? As colleges and universities seek unprecedented tuition increases and with more college grads seeking jobs than ever before, it’s time to reinvigorate the work force. No more noble cause exists in America today.

“For the most part, trades people love the work they do,” Yeagley noted. “To a lot of people work seems like drudgery - they don’t really have a natural affinity and affection for the work they do.

“Tradesmen, as much as they might bemoan the physical aspects of the job, love the actual work and love the physical display once they complete the work they’re doing on any given day.”

Taco President John White Jr. speaks to a capacity crowd of 160 tradespeople and professionals who were invited to view the film, “The Tradesmen, Making an Art of Work.”

About The Film

The pride of creating something that’s permanent and of significant value comes through loud and clear in Yeagley’s film.

The film also does an excellent job of describing the special and very unique brand of intelligence required to be a tradesman. It’s not just putting pipe together.

“For instance, when you look at plumbing, it’s a system that is quite valuable that’s often neglected,” Yeagley noted. “The health of a nation, the health of a household depends on proper plumbing.”

And not just anyone can do it, either!

“There’s this misconception that a person doing the type of work that only includes manual aspects, such as a carpenter or a plumber, doesn’t have any type of intelligence or any type of aptitude,” Yeagley said.

One of the subjects interviewed in the film makes a very interesting point. There’s a long-standing bias in the United States against “blue-collar” work, which is ironic in a country that prides itself on being an egalitarian, democratic society.

The $64,000 question: Why?

“If you look at the evolution of our economy, from agricultural industries to low-tech manufacturing, then to high-tech manufacturing and eventually to a post-industrial society, the trades and tradesworkers have been lumped into that industrial society,” Yeagley explained. “So in America, we’re in this ‘knowledge-based’ economy and we think we can sustain that forever. Jobs that are ‘of the past,’ these so-called industrial jobs, are looked at as inferior.”

Well, we at Taco hope a blue-collar, grassroots movement is afoot that will begin to dismantle the ridiculous misconception that blue-collar pros are somehow inferior to those with white collars. It’s a fallacy. The time to recognize America’s great need to strengthen its blue-collar workforce is now, more than ever before.

Care to join us?

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