Q&A with John Ratzenberger

Actor John Ratzenberger is a passionate advocate for teaching the skilled trades.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from the current issue of our sister publication, the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) since 1930.

John Ratzenberger is an American actor, voice actor, director, producer, writer and entrepreneur. Though he may be best known for his role as Cliff Clavin on the TV show “Cheers” or his voice work in every Disney Pixar movie, he’s also a strong advocate for educating people in the skilled trades. He recently served on the White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. Here he talks with AACC about breaking stigmas regarding the skilled trades.

There’s a continued stigma about the skilled trades. Why do you think that is?

The stigma around skilled trades started with the Woodstock generation. Once they started taking over the education system, they made the trades a last resort if you didn’t go to college. They pushed this idea that every child should strive for a four-year college education at the very least. To reinforce this mission, they started to cancel shop classes, which left millions of children with no primary education in a skill that would lead to a career.

That stigma has also been reinforced by the media for the last 30 years. Whenever you see a tradesman in the movie or TV show, they’re usually depicted as being stupid or dishonest. So why would a child want to have those jobs? Then you’ve got the parents who see anything but a four-year college education as failure or, at best, a limited future. Fortunately, the tide is turning.

How can that stigma be combated?

Those of us that honor these essential workers have to stand up any time and every time the trades are ridiculed. I was giving a presentation to a group of high schoolers and asked them what was their plan after graduation. One after the other they shouted out their four-year college plans. I saw one kid looking down so I asked him what was his plan. He was going to apprentice as a mechanic. The rest of the group laughed. I chuckled, too, reminding these kids that when they graduate, they’ll be paying off their student debt for years while starting at the very bottom of a corporate ladder, while my mechanic friend will likely have a home of his own, a growing bank account and a busy job fixing his former classmates’ broken down cars.

Once the media and much of society can’t find a tradesman to repair their cars, plumbing, homes, a/c, heating, elevators — anything that needs fixing or building — then maybe they’ll realize the value of these essential workers. Without tradespeople, our entire infrastructure falls apart. How can we fight this stigma immediately? Shift the entire paradigm of how the trades are represented in schools. Educators and parents have to wake up and realize that their job is to prepare the children in their care for a viable future. Not every child wants to or should get a bachelor’s degree in a major that will have very little application to real life.

How many young adults do we all know that with a four-year degree or higher that are working as baristas while struggling to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans?

Finally, the entertainment and media industries could eliminate this stigma overnight if they started to honor tradespeople the way they honor football players, Hollywood actors and politicians. We must elevate the dignity of the work and promote the self-esteem of those entering these trades, celebrating just how valuable and necessary these jobs are. If actors, athletes or legislators disappeared today, we’d be okay. But we’re in deep trouble when the lights go off and there’s no one to turn them back on.

You’ve met with legislators and industry leaders. What are you hearing from them about the workforce?

No one knows how critical this crisis is better than the manufacturers and trades associations I make presentations to across the country every year. Their workers are aging out of the workforce. The average age of a skilled tradesman in America is 58 years old. The younger generations haven’t been encouraged or trained to replace them.

I’ve testified to Congress several times and was honored to participate in the current administration’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion with legislators and industry leaders, including American Association of Community Colleges President and CEO Walter Bumphus. The Task Force has laid out the pathway to expand apprenticeship programs with concrete solutions to the industrial tsunami that is the skilled trades gap in America. The first step is to recognize that we’re at a critical juncture. There isn’t an industry in America that hasn’t been affected by this skills gap. Now it’s time to fund the programming, build the educational opportunities and create training programs that can sustain the needs of society.

Read the full interview.