John Ratzenberger, actor, producer & creator of Made in America
Originally published: 10.01.16 by Terry Tanker
Terry Tanker sat down with John Ratzenberger, actor, director, producer and creator of Travel Channel’s “Made in America.” The two discussed learning a trade, the shortage of skilled American workers and changing the perception of a career without going to college.
1. You’re known for your acting, but you’re also a big proponent of the skilled trades — where did that come from?
I grew up in a generation where we used tools all the time. We were otside building things. I remember when I was 9 or 10 years old, an old rowboat washed up into my back yard after a hurricane. I dragged it close to the house and worked on it. Back then, we grew up with these skills and then in middle school, you’d receive formal training in the use of tools. We had shop class once a week and I always enjoyed it. I always enjoyed the work.
2. What did you do with those skills?
When I was old enough, I showed up on a building site and said, “Hey, you need an extra carpenter?” And they said, “What makes you think you’re a carpenter?” I didn’t have an answer, and they had a good laugh. But they trained me. They put me through a lot of physical labor before they let me hold a hammer, because they wanted to see what I was made of. Wanted to see if I would give up, which I didn’t. So, finally, they said, “Okay, now we’re going to show you how to be a carpenter.”
3. So, before acting, you were a carpenter?
Yes. After school, I was a genuine carpenter throughout New England. That’s how I made my living — I even helped build the stage at Woodstock. Then, at the behest of a friend of mine from college who would send me a post card every now and then about how wonderful London was, I skimped up enough money to buy a ticket one way.
4. What did you do once you got there?
I actually had $5 to my name when I landed. But because of my carpentry skills, I got a job right away. So it wasn’t a big deal that I was broke when I got there.
5. What did you learn from that experience?
Knowing a trade is invaluable. When I was raising my kids, I always told them, “Make sure you have a skill that nobody can take from you. That’s your skill. You possess it. Something you can do with your hands, whether it’s carpentry, cutting hair or cooking. That way, you can go anywhere on earth and you’ll always be able to work.”
6. When did you begin to realize there was a shortage of skilled labor in the U.S.?
While I still had my show, “Made in America,” I toured the country and noticed the average age of skilled tradesmen was 55-58. I started asking around, and wondering why there weren’t younger people coming into the trades that offer great salaries, futures, pensions and health insurance.
7. What did you find out?
I discovered a big reason was because we cancelled shop classes. We have a generation of kids growing up who are basically useless with tools other than computers and cell phones.
8. That lack of technical knowledge is a bigger problem than people realize, right?
Yes, and it’s a problem in every industry — not that that’s a comfort, but HVACR isn’t the only industry suffering. I think it’s going to affect our national security too. Look at our military. Someone has to be able to keep the trucks, jets and tanks running. Right?
9. What happened?
We told everybody to go to college and we cancelled vocational training and the use of tools. We’re starting to feel the effects of that now ... we’re running out of people who know how to do things.
10. As the workforce ages, what kind of effect will it have if things don’t change?
It’s all part of the same problem — you have generations growing up not understanding the mechanical world. Every single industry is going to suffer. When you think about it, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, they might not exist in 15 years because they won’t have customers.
11. That seems extreme — doesn’t it?
Statistically, that’s exactly what’s happening. People are graduating from high school now who can’t read a ruler. You put a ruler in front of them and say, “show me 5 and 3/16,” and they can’t do it.
12. What needs to change politically to bring the trades back?
I testified before Congress on this topic back in May. We need to quickly reinstate shop classes in middle schools and high schools and make it mandatory.
13. How do we get organizations like the EPA to understand their impact when new rules make it difficult for U.S. manufacturers to compete?
I don’t think you’ll ever get the EPA to understand that point of view. The EPA sprung out of the 1960s revolution where we had to save the Earth. To them, anybody who has a manufacturing facility or factory or owns one is evil — that’s their bottom line.
14. How did they become so disconnected?
They’ve never been in business and never met a deadline. How can you expect them to understand things from the manufacturer’s point of view? They’ve never manufactured anything.
15. What needs to change socially?
The media could help in a great way by depicting people who use tools as heroes instead of idiots. Every movie you see now, the guy who pulls up in the service truck is always depicted as being a little less intelligent than the 16-year-old dope-smokin’ hero of the movie.
16. That’s certainly the stereotype — when did that happen?
Up until the 1960s, skilled trades were honored jobs. After the 60s, everything changed.
17. Is it true you’re working on a new television series about the shortage of skilled workers?
We’re trying to sell that, but as you can imagine, the media really doesn’t recognize there’s a problem at all. And when they finally do, it’s going to be too late.
18. Is it expensive to launch a show like that?
To do it the right way, you’d need at least a couple of million dollars. And that’s without television. You can just put that on the Internet. You can start your own network now. It’s simple to do, but expensive.
19. Where are our best recruiting opportunities?
The smart thing to do would be to set up training centers on military bases so that, when people do get out of the military, they’ve got skills that are marketable. You also have to talk to the schools and get their minds around the fact that college is not the be all and end all.
20. How do you teach kids that a career in the trades isn’t a bad thing?
The first step is really getting parents to understand that if their child wants to be an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter, it should be celebrated. They can make good money and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.