A Crucible for Tomorrow’s Trades
April 18, 2019
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
The nation’s largest non-profit facility dedicated to education in the industrial arts runs out of a seemingly simple warehouse in West Oakland, California. Fittingly called The Crucible, the venture was launched in January of 1999 by a mixed media sculptor named Michael Sturtz, who started the program with about a dozen classes, teaching more than half of them himself.
Now, 20 years after its founding, The Crucible offers more than 300 classes in everything from Blacksmithing and Glass “Flamework” to Machine Shop, Kinetics, MIG and TIG welding, Jewelry Making, Leatherwork, Book-Binding, Paper Sculpture, Wood steam-bending, Enamel work, and Bicycle Mechanics. The facility’s graduates have gone on to design a diesel motorcycle that set a speed record, win commissions for prominent public art projects, stage neighborhood “bike fix-a-thons,” and perform in local “fire circuses,” events that typically sell out.
And don’t get the wrong impression—the classes here are far more than fun and games. They are about introducing people to career opportunities beyond the desk work that typically comes out of a four-year college education.
Today, if you poke around the Internet for information on job trends, it won’t be long before you stumble upon an article fretting about the growing shortage of people skilled in “the trades.” (Translation: plumbers, electricians, sheet metal specialists, carpenters, construction workers in general, and the like.)
From all indications, we’ve reached another one of those pendulum swings: for years, industry leaders, politicians, and the media have all been hyperventilating about today’s new “knowledge economy,” which will be almost entirely built around “information technology.” Yes, there is plenty of growth in that sector, too, but it turns out we still need to build things. And we still need to fix the things we build. Frank Wilson, a retired neurosurgeon and the author of “The Hand,” likes to make a joke about tomorrow’s supposedly high-tech nirvana: When we finally send a spaceship to Mars, who will be the most valuable person in the crew? “The handy-man,” Wilson says, “because shit’s always going to break.” (For more about America’s blind spot on this front, and the lucrative opportunities we’re missing, see our article, “The Apprenticeship Ambivalence.”)
Enter The Crucible, training tomorrow’s handymen, and handywomen. To that end, Susan Mernit, The Crucible’s executive director, says her team focuses on three priorities: first, developing accredited trades people for all those unfilled jobs; second, giving youngsters an opportunity to spend their free time in a way that is healthier, and more brain-building, than tapping on their phones; and third, developing a new generation of people who can make a living with their hands, and pay rent, in today’s increasingly expensive cities. “In the first and second tier cities around this country,” Mernit says, “more and more artists and artisans are getting squeezed out every year.”
But every year, The Crucible delivers forth someone who just might replace one of those squeezed-out artists. One example is Maritza Bernal Magana, an aspiring welder. Another is Rakau “Rocky” Boikanyo, who has become fascinated by metalwork and recently got a scholarship from Harbor Freight Tools, facilitated by Big Picture Learning, a school reform initiative. (Full disclosure: Like The Crucible, Big Picture Learning is one of The Craftsmanship Initiative’s partners, and its leaders discovered Rocky after we profiled him in a 2018 article entitled “Young Champions of Craftsmanship.”)
The Crucible also offers a range of adult classes—for those wanting to finally develop that favorite hobby, or look for new job skills. Classes for adults range from 3-hour “tasters” in crafts such as glass-blowing, jewelry, and metalwork to weekend intensives and even full-blown 8-week courses. If you can’t get to Oakland, treat yourself to one of The Crucible’s DIY guides. There are guides to making your own ceramic coffee pour-over; another on making a “butt solder” for jewelry; how to paint with grey enamels to create 3d works of art, and how to smelt iron.
Right now, The Crucible is gearing up for yet another ambitious summer program of classes for youths from age 8-18. If you’re not sure if the commute would be worth your time, here’s another full disclosure: my younger son took one of these classes, in glass flame-work, for just a week during Spring break last year when he was 13. He came home with about 60 brightly-colored glass objects he’d made—pendants, garden decorations, marbles, and tiny mushrooms—and ended up selling most of them at a school fair for $150. Knowledge workers, beware.