A comeback for old-world work

A self-employed builder for the past 40 years, my father-in-law works with architects to create large custom homes in New York's verdant Hudson Valley - retreats for the Manhattan elite.

He's a proud northern German who came up through an old-world apprenticeship system that demanded real achievement before it permitted advancement.

Finding subcontractors that meet his - and his clients' - high standards has grown more difficult across the decades.

Just 20 years ago, he says, he had fairly little trouble finding, say, a tile man who had really honed his trade, often in the Old Country - "a real craftsman." Even such skilled labor was cheap. The real costs were in the materials. "Now," he says, "it's the other way around."

He and his clients have to stand in line - and pay a premium. "Only the rich can afford this kind of workmanship," he says.

It's a simple issue of supply.

In an increasingly affluent post-World War II society, a college education - and eventually one geared toward technology - became the most-expected route for middle-class American youths.

Trade school became, more or less, a fallback plan. Many youths drawn to work that dirtied their hands felt that life as a carpenter, as my father-in-law laments, was some sort of second-rate career.

Times change. A decade of wealth - now getting its hard reality check - ramped up the demand for perfect stone walls and mantels.

One effect: A growing call for skilled workers in the building trades that has dovetailed with a broadening quest for "work with meaning." A range of workers, from entry-level to mid-career, may now answer the call. Look for a new wave of heroes - with trowels.

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