If views were currency, all of the nearly 2,500 residents of White Salmon, Wash., would be millionaires. The town perches 600 feet up an embankment that overlooks the Columbia River Gorge and provides a postcard-perfect view of Mount Hood. I’ll long remember that view, but what impressed me more lay behind the ridge, in the woodshop at the local high school.
There I met materials science teacher John Hadley and two dozen students who gave me both hope and concern for the future of construction and construction supply in America.
First, the hope: Hadley has built a program that delivers myriad opportunities for his charges to exercise their imaginations and create stuff.
One student fashioned an enormous sign for home out of wood and laser-cut metal that displayed his family’s name. Another spoke expertly about the elegant knives and 21st-century sheaths he was making—a project that, since it involved knives on school grounds, he had to persuade state officials to let him do. Elsewhere, a student had figured out how to make and paint a 2-foot-tall metal replica of a bear, Columbia High School’s mascot. And others cut wood to build projects ranging from a giant planter box to a canoe.
I was visiting White Salmon with Tina Kupper, manager of the Tum-A-Lum Lumber yard a few miles away in Hood River, Ore. Tum-A-Lum won an Excellence Award from us for its marketing program, and as part of that prize Tum-A-Lum got a check to give to the charity of its choice. Tum-A-Lum chose White Salmon’s shop class, so I was there to help Kupper deliver the prize.
As with most teachers, Hadley knew immediately how to put that money to good use. It was clear that, if teachers were measured for return on investment, he’d be a five-star fund. A lot of his kids have taken jobs in the community, and local employers welcome the opportunity to hire more.
Now for the concern. I think one reason why White Salmon has a decent vocational education program is because it’s pretty much in a blue-collar region, with a lumber mill and a fruit-packing plant. It’s towns like these, with their Future Farmers of America chapters and manufacturing base, where I tend to see taught the skills that lend themselves to home building and construction supply.
These schools are largely hidden treasures, and I cherish them. But industrial arts programs in high schools with just 360 students aren’t enough to overcome the labor shortage. Bigger-city schools need to revive these types of programs as well, and then promote them as much as they do their college-prep classes. Then kids far from White Salmon will benefit just as much from using their hands and minds to create things ... and see a path to a future career.