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‘Preservation trades’ workforce solutions are targeted with help of new study


Solving shortage of workers who know how to work with old buildings will have economic, housing, environmental benefits, New England historic preservation groups say.

The Canaan Memorial High School Building Construction and Restoration Carpentry program on the job in Colebrook. Photo/New Hampshire Preservation Alliance

DURHAM, NH – The preservation building trades have a severe workforce shortage that’s having an impact not only on historic preservation, but on available affordable housing in the Northeast, a survey spearheaded by University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension has found.

A shortage in workers skilled in working on older buildings has reached a boiling point, spurred by the combination of older workers retiring, more demand, an ongoing stigma that steers young people away from trades careers and a misperception of what preservation work entails, the report, “Understanding and Advancing the Preservation Trades,” found.

The Northeast Regional Initiative for the Preservation Trades partnered with UNH Cooperative Extension on the study. The initiative comprises New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, Preservation League of New York State, Preservation Trust of Vermont and Maine Preservation. The report was written by the UNH Cooperative Extension Economic Development team of Jada Lindblom, Molly Donovan and Scott Slattery.

The preservation organizations that partnered on the survey say they will use the report to develop action plans, engage new business and educational partners, and build awareness and enthusiasm for trades careers.

Positives in the report are that those engaged in such work have high job satisfaction, find their jobs creative and engaging, are happy with what they earn and the industry is becoming more welcoming to underrepresented populations.

New Hampshire Preservation Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Goodman said she is looking forward to putting the research into action.

“Tradespeople’s reports of high job satisfaction, positive trends like the trades becoming more welcoming to women, and strong examples of existing informal and formal mentorships and training that could grow make addressing this huge challenge feel more personal and do-able,” Goodman said in a news release.

The preservation trades workforce shortage is keenly felt in northern New England, which has an abundance of older and historic buildings. Historic preservation has proved to be an economic boon, particularly for smaller cities and towns, several studies have shown. The affordable housing crisis is also affected by the shortage – “every day” older buildings, not just historic ones, benefit from workers skilled in the preservation trades, 

Making more older homes livable and safe, particularly given the affordable housing crisis, relies on finding ways to create a stronger preservation workforce, making preservation more available to a broader range of property owners and developers, the report says.

There are also community, economic and environmental impacts.

“Historic preservation is a critical element of community vitality and fostering a strong sense of place and connection to local heritage,” the report says. “Preservation practices also offer important environmental sustainability strategies toward climate change mitigation and resource conservation.”

A graphic shows survey respondents’ perception of where the greatest job shortages are. Graphic/Understanding and Advancing the Preservation Trades/UNH Cooperative Extension

Survey Findings

The survey’s participants were people who work or volunteer in New Hampshire, New York, Maine or Vermont in preservation development or maintenance of historic buildings.

More than a quarter of those who responded to the survey are hiring, with many having trouble finding qualified workers.

Particularly hard to find are skilled carpenters, plumbers, masons and plasterers, as well as well as those with more specialized focus, such as materials conservation, decorative ironwork and historic window restoration.

Reasons for the shortage include the increasing number of buildings at a critical age for repairs, tradespeople who have needed skills aging out and retiring, and recent rural in-migration trends across the Northeast region, increasing labor demand, among other issues, the report says.

On the positive side, more than one-third of survey respondents who work in the field said they have a wait list of a year or more for their services, and many said they are in such demand they can “name their price,” for the work they do.

Some of the findings of the survey are:

  • 73% of tradesperson respondents said they are frequently asked for referrals for other preservation tradespeople
  • 75% believe demand for preservation trades is growing 
  • 88% say training programs can play a greater role in recruitment and workforce development
  • 93% say young people lack knowledge about preservation trades career paths
  • 96% of the tradespeople surveyed said they are satisfied with their career.
The Steeple Man’s crew works on a church in East Machias, Maine. Photo/Maine Preservation

Education, Perception Changes Needed

Those surveyed suggest that students in Career and Technical Education programs, who are often directed toward new construction careers, should be given more information about preservation trades.  

Stigma about going into construction trades, rather than a four-year college education, doesn’t help, the survey found. 

One positive finding is that while preservation trades in the Northeast have historically been dominated by white men, the workforce is diversifying and there are opportunities to build upon the momentum. Women, in particular, are increasingly entering the trades and finding a more welcoming atmosphere than in the past, though gender biases and discrimination are still an issue.

The report also found high satisfaction among those who work in the trades. Respondents said the fact that tradespeople can be creative, use problem solving skills and do interesting work should be emphasized more.

“I love preservation work because of the variety of the skills you need to do the job, and because each project brings new challenges,” Ian Blackman, an old barn expert and a former NH Preservation Alliance board member, said in a news release from the NHPA about the report. “When you are working on a barn that was built in the 1700s, you are repairing timbers from trees that were saplings in the 1500s. The connection to the landscape and the people that worked it is very rewarding.”

Active engagement between preservation organizations and trades businesses is also key, the preservation groups said. 

Arron Sturgis, owner of Preservation Timber Framing Inc. in Berwick, Maine, is a board member of both NHPA and Maine Preservation, and is engaged with the effort to expand the workforce.

“[The information gathered in the survey] provides a basis for action that will create really good jobs and much-needed aid to homeowners and historic commercial ventures,” he said.

Several “promising partnerships” are already underway, such as apprenticeship and fellowship programs for youth and new professionals, according to the preservation organizations.


About this Contributor

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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