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Trade Schools: Alive or Dead?

I recently posted this on my Facebook page: “When I was in high school, some students boarded a bus and attended Vocational (Trade) School. Here, they learned about trades. I bring this up because I attended a half-day seminar on homelessness in Kansas City. For someone transitioning from homelessness to wanting to buy a home, access to affordable housing is a huge deal in Kansas City (because of income deficiency). One presenter said, “There are so many vacant houses that once repaired or rehabbed would be idea for affordable housing.” He also said, “We have found while the houses to rehab are plenty, the number of rehabbers is not.” So, back to how I began — are trade schools still up and running I wonder? If not, what if the church provided trade training to young people?”

For ‘Underperforming Students’

One comment from a former student grieved me although I anticipated a comment like this.  He posted this on my Facebook feed: “One of the issues is that my generation and near mine were conditioned to look down on trade school and those careers. We were told to ‘aim high which meant not using our hands or doing any sort of labor, that’s for the down and out.”  Another person wrote this, “The attitude of the student body of my school was very negative on trade school.  It was seen as remedial.  It was understood to be for people who were underperforming academically and didn’t have many other options for their future.”

I cannot say that I looked down on these peers when I was in high school because my father (Tracy Bobo, Sr.), my stepdad (Robert E. Frazier), my beloved grandpa (Henry S. Bobo) and many African-American men I knew worked in the trades. For example, my grandpa who was truly a scholar-athlete in high school and who later served in WWII in the Navy, owned and operated his brick masonry company.  My grandpa was an entrepreneur.  To say he was excellent at what he did would be an understatement!  Rather than being an underperformer, my grandpa was an intelligent brick mason and company owner.

Feel Their Absence

Once upon a time, I said, “For those who look down on our neighborhood trash collectors and don’t view their work as important, let them go on strike and we’ll quickly see and smell how important their work is.” Similarly, for those who have this negative opinion of those who went to trade school or make their living working a trade, I say that, if tradespeople would suddenly go on hiatus we would certainly feel their absence most acutely.  Think about a clogged toilet without a plumber to unclog it.  Think about a malfunctioning car without a skilled car mechanic to repair it.  Think about a sweltering hot summer with a broken AC unit and no HVAC technician to repair it. Think about the wiring needed for a recreational room without the services of an electrician.  Think about being aboard an airplane needing a repair before take-off without an avionic technician to address it.

Breakdown of the Family: Another Reason

Sadly, I think when our parents or others communicate explicitly or implicitly that trade work is inferior work, this leads to a shortage of men and women considering and entering trade schools to learn a trade.  I think there is another reason why there is a shortage.  While I did not go to a trade school, I learned basic skills that tradespeople do by watching my stepdad, my dad and grandpa.  For instance, I learned how to run wire for a ceiling fan; I learned how to replace the flushing mechanism in the toilet tank; I learned how to change the oil in my car; I learned how to hold and use a hammer — I learned all these skills by watching my father, stepfather and my grandfather.  With the breakdown of the family, many young men, in particular, do not have any idea how to even hold or use a hammer because dad is not around. I wonder if this shortage of tradespeople, even amateur ones like myself, will become even more common as the human family continues to disintegrate?

Noble and Dignifying Work

Personally, I think those men and women skilled in trades have noble and dignifying work.  I believe as the late Dr. Martin Luther King said, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”  Those engaged in trade school jobs – whether it is changing a spark plug or unclogging a fetid smelling toilet or running wire for a ceiling fan – are doing work that has dignity and importance and contributes to human flourishing.  All this makes me think of my nephew, Marcus Johnson.  He is a plumber today and I am really proud of him.  Today, he works for a company but some day he plans to own and operate his business and I will proud of him then too.

I salute all men and women engage in a trade.  Our standard of living utterly relies on your skill and competence. Thank you for your work!


Henry Sylvester Bobo is my late paternal grandfather.  To say, I adored and respected this man would be a gross understatement. I miss this man. When I think of him, and that’s often, I smile. He taught me much (and he still teaches me posthumously).  I observed him up close and personal and from a far (we stayed in Kansas City, MO; he and my grandmother lived in Kansas City, KS). I am people watcher. I am an observer (credit my engineering training and laboratory days). Watching and observing grandpa was a joy to me and a preoccupation of mine. What did I observe and/or learn from this honorable and illustrious man?

First, he taught me that it’s okay to have an imagination. My granddad was wildly creative.  His imagination manifested itself in the beautiful works he did with bricks, concrete and stone. He built fireplaces, patios, and walls.  He was an entrepreneur: a self-employed brickmason! And he was good. His imagination was evident with his “home made shoes.” Long story, but those shoes, they were a sight to behold!

Second, he was a tender, affectionate and gentle man. He was the first African-American man to say to me, “I love you.” The first man. Although I struggle to say those three words, I still remember my dear grandpa saying those words to me; I was a teenager I believe.

Third, he showed me husbandry.  He was not a perfect man (I am certain his kids would attest to that); however, from what I observed, he was a good husband to the late Willa Mae, his dear love and the former high kicking majorette at Sumner High School.  Theirs was the true Camelot marriage in my mind. I vividly remember my grandpa, the doting husband, would respond to Willa Mae’s inquiries by saying “yes, baby.” When she became a vulnerable and ‘weak lamb’ – when she grew ill and struggled with dementia – she would ask the same question repeatedly and yet, he would respond patiently, “yes, baby.”  When she was hospitalized, he stayed in the hospital room with her by sleeping on an uncomfortable couch. He loved his wife, Willa Mae.  When Willa Mae died, they had been married 67 years – yes, count them, 67 years!

Fourth, he was a man of few words. In a world where so many are talking and making unintelligible ‘blah, blah, blah’ noise, for him to be a man of few words was/is refreshing to me.

Fifth, he was not a TV watcher (or I don’t remember him being a TV watcher); he loved to ‘pittle’ in the yard.  I am not sure what he was always doing in the backyard, but he would be doing something; he would be pittling. Maybe that’s where I get my restlessness and my tendency to pittle.  Let’s just say that he was industrious and that his work ethnic was quite remarkable.

Sixth, he and my late grandmother, loved ‘fancy’ cars (at least they were fancy to me).  They loved the Ford Thunderbird, for example.  Once upon a time they had a convertible Thunderbird. Today, I have a convertible Ford Mustang. Yes, they influenced me with their flare for fashion and their taste, their eclecticism, their class and dignity and their adventure for cars.

Seventh, he served in WWII aboard a Navy Ship and while he did not talk about it, I am certain he suffered many indignities from his fellow white ship men.  He suffered indignities state side too as he lived during the overtly racist and insidious Jim Crow days. Yet, when I saw him, his head was proudly and confidently held up…he did not walk around like someone beat down.

Eighth, he was a brilliant man.  He invented several contractions (I regret not helping him getting some of these things patented).  He was truly a scholar-athlete in high school – lettering in football and basketball. Unbeknownst to me was his nickname in high school – ‘Betty Boop’; ironically, my daughter Briana, her nickname was ‘Betty Boop’.

Ninth, even as he got older, he was still fit…maybe because he pittled, maybe because of his work ethic.  He had a ‘six pack’ for all the years I known him.

Tenth, he was a Christian man. He taught Sunday School and sometimes he would walk to church (maybe another reason why he was fit); while we, my brother and grandmother and me, were typically and fashionably tardy. And as we came into Stranger’s Rest Baptist Church through the side door and took our normal spot, grandpa would smile and shake his head not in a condemning way but admirably toward his Willa Mae. You can tell he admired his beautiful and always fashionably stylish wife.

What a fine specimen of a man was Henry Sylvester Bobo!