Addressing The Skills Gap: Preparing for the Storm on the Horizon

Words: Dean Marsico For those of us that work outside, growing up in the Boston area, harsh winters and nor’easter are a way of life. If you’ve been in our business long enough you have earned the right to complain and dread every type of weather unless its, sunny and in the 70’s with a slight breeze. On the flip side there are others that relish in the news of a coming storm. They plow snow, own a grocery store, sell gas, or batteries. As is life, there are always two sides, no matter what the issue. My wish is to find common ground where we all can agree. Well mostly agree. Ok I’ll even take somewhat agree. My cousin Derek and I have worked on many construction sites in MA and around the country. During our travels we have met and talked with many owners and employees of contracting companies both large and small. Inevitably, no matter the conversation it always turns to “The Millennials” followed by “What is going to happen with the Trades in the coming future”?

As a middle-aged man in the construction field it’s my right and my badge of honor to complain about the next generation. They are lazy, stuck looking on their phones all day, can’t get out of bed, don’t respect their elders, and…I can keep going but I will spare you some time out of your busy day. Here is the truth. Or should I say the truth as I see it.  In every generation we can pick out a few bad apples and paint an entire group of young men and women with a broad brush.  Thankfully for myself, I have lived long enough to learn that making generalities usually gets me into trouble. This is the part I hope my wife is reading. Without much effort, I will prove that everything I just said was one big generality. How about we start with our young men and women in the Armed Forces? I hope we can all agree they have done an exemplary job in very difficult situations, they never quit, and they represent our country with honor and give us tremendous pride. I rest my case. I believe I have proven that we can’t put a whole generation in one big box. Throughout the years, I have also witnessed some hard working, smart, skilled young Tradesmen and Tradeswomen who give me incredible hope for the future of our Trade and for all of the Trades. The problem is there just aren’t enough of them.

I have been blessed. I grew up with a strong Italian family that was lead by my “Papa”. He came to the United States at fourteen by himself, learned English and worked two jobs, made shoes during the day and cleaned the shipyard at night. He instilled a great love for our country, a work ethic and pride in our Italian roots. Most people assume Derek and I learned our trade from an Italian family member but the truth be told we learned from his Dad, my Uncle Arthur French Stearns. An Englishman!  He started working here at Plymouth Quarries, where Derek and I run the sales and marketing. At an early age he was running the forklift and spent his lunch breaks hanging with the stonecutters down by the pit who cut and palletized our Weymouth Granite. The stone that builds Boston College, Yale University, The University of Michigan Law, along with countless churches, buildings and bridges, some over a hundred years old. Artie married Derek’s mother Ginny aka “Sparky” the name Papa gave her at birth when her room was struck by lightning.  If you have ever met Auntie Ginny you would understand why it is a perfect nickname. After a few years at Plymouth Quarries, the stone cutters pulled Artie aside, gave him a push out the door reminding him that “you are married with a kid on the way and it was time to get out there and start your own masonry business”. Artie borrowed money from a local businessman, bought a truck and thus began Stearns Masonry.  In his day, if you were a mason you did everything, and that is what he did.  Brick, block, stone, flatwork, paving, and anything else that came his way.  He slowly built a business and made a name for himself. 

At some point in our youth his sons and his nephews had all worked for him.  We were called “Lumpies” and as a running gag each of us had a number assigned to them. Derek was number three I was number four, which is pretty much the story of my life. The chubby kid is always last.  At a young age I was shoveling sand while one of my older cousins would lift the ninety-pound bags  into the mixer. Speaking of which I still have memories of wrapping that old clothesline rope around the crankshaft and pulling it to start. No real pull cord back then. I believe we broke every child labor law back then which I’m sure many of you who grew up in the trades can relate to. Thus began our apprenticeship into the world of Masonry.  My job was mixing, lifting, and cleaning up. Not much skill work.  Artie always would always tell us “I hope you never have to do this for a living, but if you do, you will always find a way to take care of your family”.  He was right. There was no way in hell we were going to be stone masons. 

Tragically, Artie was killed in an accident. As you can imagine it was devastating. At the time I was out of college working for a large company and Derek and his brother Butch had to take the reins on their own without their mentor and Dad. They were on a very difficult high-end job that was less than halfway complete. The Architect on site said he would give them a chance and see what happens. When the job was finished the Architect couldn’t tell where Artie’s work ended and theirs began. I think Butch and Derek would tell you this was the time in their lives where boys became men. That work ethic and that trade Artie gave his sons enabled them to pick themselves up and move forward.

I moved out of state while Derek kept the lights on with the business doing small jobs here and there. His brother Butch left and became a successful sportscaster. Those of us that have some battle scars from this life understand it has a way of throwing you a curveball every now and then. We were no different. I moved back home with a wife, a four year-old son and another on the way. I needed to find a way to make a living.  Derek sold the dump truck and most of the tools. I would like to say I talked him into starting up the business again, but I think he felt bad for me. I was living in the room I grew up in and I wasn’t in the best, shall we say, state of mind.   We made an agreement. Let’s just go job to job and see what happens.  Our first vehicle was a 1987 Jeep Cherokee with rotted floor boards, one wheelbarrow, a shovel, a few brick hammers, two trowels,  two jointers and two five gallon buckets. Thus began Stearns Stoneworks. The previous owners of Plymouth Quarries helped us out and gave us a few small jobs working on some outside displays they wanted built. Thinking back on those days, Derek and I remind ourselves of those many Fourth of Julys where we could smell barbecues in the neighborhoods while we were working. One job led to the next. After some years, we grew our company by hiring employees, buying a mixer and a dump truck.  Smaller jobs became larger jobs and we started to branch out into outdoor design. Then came Television. We never could have imagined the places this trade of ours has led us starting with that first day driving in a rusted out Cherokee. I will never forget that day or my uncle Artie and the Trade he gave us. It literally has given us a life.

I am well aware there are those of you in our trade that make our story look like a drop in the mortar pan. Can you guess where I’m going with this?  Our stories need to be told. Not because we want attention or a pat on the back. They should be told because we need to inspire the next generation. Let them see how working in the Trades can build a future. It’s not easy. It’s physically and mentally taxing. You need to learn how to do things the right way and there is no fast track or overnight success. It takes years of work, mistakes, some bad decisions, sore backs, and at times a little blood. If you respect and work at this trade you will be amazed what it can give you in return. These are lessons all of us have learned over years of working. Though our stories must be shared they are not enough to calm the storm that is brewing.

Today there is a ominous sized gap in our skilled labor pool and it is a major concern whether you are an architect, own a masonry company, are a product manufacturer, or a supply store. Who is going to fill this void? Please understand I am not here to preach or offer a one size fits all solution. I’m not that smart nor do I pretend to know it all. I do know that in my travels over the years, to places like the World Of Concrete, my conversations with fellow masons and others involved in the Mason Contractors Association of America have all expressed the same concern. What will the future look like?  How can we get to the Millennials? 

Back in the day, damn I sound so old, if you wanted to become a mason you had a family member in the business like I did, or you went to work for one of the old school guys who most likely were a part of the wave of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, or Portugal. You started as a laborer mixing, stocking, and cleaning up on jobs for many years before you even got to set a stone, brick, or block. Masons do not like to share their secrets and you were extremely lucky if they let you in on them. We are all very competitive by the nature of our business and we all have different ways to do things.  The basic principals of masonry hardly ever change but we all put our own personal touch into every job we do.  If we want our trade to flourish through the years I believe it’s time we start sharing some of our  secrets.

In the new age of masonry, crews have become more specialized. Many new products have been introduced, things are constantly changing and now the world of Hardscape has become a large part of our business, which in turn has brought in other players. Landscapers. Yes, landscapers are doing masonry work. To be honest some of them should not being doing any kind of masonry. They are self-trained, have no interest in doing things the right way and don’t respect the time or effort it takes to be a good mason. There are also landscapers that are doing it right and want to learn as much as they can from us, if we’re willing to teach them. I have seen it first hand.

In our travels working around the country, Derek and I have met a lot of landscapers that have great respect for our trade and they and their employees are really talented. There has been some tension through the years between our world of masonry and the world of landscaping. The times are changing rapidly and I believe landscapers are going to play a large part in the future of our business.  Some say that they haven’t paid their dues and haven’t learned the proper way to do things. Once again, we can’t put everyone in the same box. There are good points on both sides, which make for great discussion in the local taverns.

Here is the reality. There are a large amount of landscaping companies around the country that are owned by young men and women who are doing very well and aren’t closing shop anytime soon to go work for a masonry crew mixing and lumping. It’s just not going to happen. They have proven they have a work ethic, they know how to run crews, take care of business and they do things the right way. Perfect candidates. The foundation is poured and we just need to start the building. I think there is a huge opportunity for us to build the bridge. We have some great organizations like MCAA, MIA + BSI, huge trades shows like WOC, and many top-notch companies in our business. Let’s band together and reach out to our Veterans, top notch landscapers and anyone else who is willing to learn. The Mason Unions do a great job at this with their apprenticeship programs but they can only do so much. How do we make it happen on a national level? I have no idea. In our small world here at PQ we have started doing classes teaching younger crews some of the basics and teaching them how to use products that make our work better. It’s a start but it has to be bigger.  Let’s at least have the conversation and be open to all ideas.    

This Trade of ours has given all of us many opportunities and somewhere along the line we had help.Truth be told I have met some of the kindest most generous people in all phases of our business. Teaching younger crews over the years and offering them classes to learn basic skills has been very rewarding, especially to watch their business grow.  They help connect us back to where we began, cousins who were taught masonry from an Englishman who married into the family. Passing on the things we have learned connects us back to where we began.  What an incredible opportunity we have to acknowledge our Italian immigrant Grandfather and honor those who have given us so much.

Words: Dean Marsico

Photos: Dean Marsico and Masonry Magazine

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