Alyssa Fortune woke up in her own bed this morning in Fredrick, Maryland. By mid-morning she was at work in Manassas National Battlefield Park, prepping the hand-seamed metal roof on the property’s historic farmhouse for new paint. Foundations and roofs are given priority by the National Park Service, which works hard to maintain the historic buildings found in parks all over the country. Sometimes the park service puts contracts out to bid, particularly when the work requires a specialty trade. But often it is National Park Service employees who do the carpentry and masonry work required to keep buildings on 419 properties and 85-million acres of parks in good repair. Alyssa is one of those National Park Service employees. She specializes in wood crafting, which is park service lingo for finish carpentry, and she won’t be home again until next weekend. She’ll spend this week, as she does most of her time, on the road, in whichever park her skills are needed.
If Alyssa’s gig sounds like a dream job, you may be interested to know how she landed it. After completing a degree in physics at Colorado College, Alyssa went to work at a law firm where she immediately realized that she wanted nothing to do with working in an office. At 24 years-old, she quit her job and started looking for something different. Though she doesn’t remember how—perhaps through the Sierra Club—it was at this time that she learned about a new apprenticeship program associated with the National Park Service. The Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program was accepting applications for it’s very first cohort, which is park service lingo for a group of apprentices.
Trying to understand the relationships between the bureaus, departments, and agencies of the Federal government is just a bit more difficult than trying to understanding the relationship between the string theory and the Standard Model of physics. Somehow nestled into the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, is the related, but independent, Historic Preservation Training Center. Perhaps most easily understood as the contracting arm of the National Park Service, the training center is dedicated to education in historic preservation and its requisite trades, and works with appropriate partners outside of the park service, as well.
Started in the 1970s, the Historic Preservation Training Center just began its first formal apprenticeship program in 2017. Alyssa’s cohort had seven members. “I had no idea what I had signed up for,” said Alyssa, “I barely knew which side of a hammer to pick up. But I really liked it. They are really good at making sure that you don’t get in over your head.”
In 2018, the training center opened the program to two populations. The youth intake program is open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 and the veterans program is open to vets age 18 to 35. All participants start with a boot camp where they learn the fundamentals of historic preservation, construction, hand and power tools, job-site safety, first aid, and of course how the park service and the training center fit into the overall architecture of the Federal Government. With this introductory training under their belt, apprentices report to their assigned host parks, where the rest of the program is on the job.
According to Moss Rudley, superintendent for the training center, their priority mission is to maintain a rigorous hands-on historic preservation training program for National Park Service employees. “We utilize historic preservation projects for the National Park Service to teach trade skills around carpentry, masonry, wood crafting, and technical skills including architecture and project management, all while executing historic preservation projects from beginning to end,” said Moss.
“When a client comes to us, we provide them a cost estimate to do the work and go over all of the protocols to make sure it meets the Secretary of the Interior’s standards,” he continued, “Then we mobilize a crew, develop any training that is going to be incorporated within that project, and execute the work.”
In other words, the training center is simultaneously maintaining many of the National Park Service’s historic buildings, while training the next generation of carpenters and masons who will preserve buildings in our national parks and beyond. While completion of the apprenticeship program does qualify participants for full-time employment in the National Park Service, Moss says that it also prepares them for careers in the private sector, if that’s the route they’d like to go.
Alyssa completed the program, stayed with the park service for another 14 months as an intern, and was finally hired as a maintenance mechanic. It’s a position that utilizes all of the skills she learned during her apprenticeship, and where she says that she learns something new every day. In the fall she’ll begin a master’s program in historic preservation at Boston Architectural College, while continuing full-time with the park service. When I asked Alyssa what advice she would give to someone considering the program, she enthusiastically exclaimed, “Just do it!”
Perhaps that’s good advice. But according to Nicholas Redding, the challenge has been spreading the word about the program. Nicholas is the executive director for Preservation Maryland, a charitable partner of the training center. “Our job is to help with recruiting,” said Nicholas, “We want to bring a younger, more diverse group of people into the historic preservation trades. And we want to make sure that at the end of the program those people are getting placed in appropriate jobs and we’re helping to fix the problem of the lack of skilled tradespeople all over the country.”
According to Nicholas, in 2019 the apprenticeship program expects to train between 50 and 60 people and to use parks from Northern California to Puerto Rico as training sites. Funding for the program comes in part through the public sector, namely AmeriCorps, and in part through the private sector. Connecticut-based Tauck Tours funded one of the 2019 veteran cohorts. Apprentices are paid a stipend and given per diem when they are traveling to parks away from home, and park housing is sometimes available. That’s National Park Service lingo for a pretty sweet deal. If you agree, visit the Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program page here, and help to spread the word about this great opportunity.