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It’s no coincidence that the character John Ratzenberger voiced in the 2006 Pixar hit Cars was a Mack truck. His father was a 36-year driver — and loyal to the Mack brand.
“I used to go out with him on the road when I was much younger,” says the actor who made his name on the hit TV series Cheers. “It was always a treat for me to pull the chain and sound the horn.”
Ratzenberger followed in those footsteps only briefly, occasionally driving a truck when his carpentry job required it. But the example his father set and his own experiences working in trades inspired the TV star to use his fame to raise awareness about the importance and rewards of blue-collar jobs.
“Being an actor is not a necessary job, nor is being a baseball player or a rock star,” he says. “They’re nice jobs, they’re fun, but driving a truck is necessary for civilization.”
Ratzenberger’s largest initiative is Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), the foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. Established in 2006, NBT encourages students to enter the manufacturing workforce through scholarships, grants for summer camps and other programs. “Dedicated to nurturing the tinkering spirit” is its motto.
“We’re running out of people who know how to make things,” Ratzenberger says. “And we’ve neglected to teach kids the skills that can capture those jobs. Where are the mechanics, or the people who are going to build trucks, or operate the machines that make their parts?”
So, at NBT-sponsored camps nationwide, kids try out skills such as metalworking, or simple carpentry projects like building birdhouses. When Ratzenberger visits, he finds campers surprised and delighted by their projects — much like the joy he felt out on the road with his dad.
“For some, this is the first time in their lives they’ve made things with their hands,” he says.
Get with the program
The idea for NBT was planted while Ratzenberger was traveling around the country filming the Travel Channel’s cable TV series Made in America from 2004 to 2008. He heard a common complaint: a shortage of skilled tradesmen. “I saw the writing on the wall,” he says. He also noticed that many employers attributed the problem locally, unaware it was a nationwide trend.
A 2009 survey by Deloitte LLP and The Manufacturing Institute found that only 17 percent of Americans named manufacturing in the top two industries to start a career, and only 30 percent of parents said they’d encourage their children to go into the field. A survey the same year by Manpower Inc. listed electricians, carpenters and welders as among the “hardest jobs to fill in America.”
On the surface, the question of why there’s little relative interest in such jobs is puzzling. Skilled manual trades generally pay well and promise better-than-average job security. And many, like truck driving, are immune to outsourcing.
Some think the shortage is due to an increased emphasis on college education, which is then associated with professional careers instead of manufacturing work. Others worry math and science is being deemphasized in school curriculums, along with shop and vocational programs.
But Ratzenberger believes at least part of the reason that fewer and fewer students are going into trades is something truck drivers are familiar with — the portrayal of blue-collar professions in TV and movies.
“The media has played a big part in demeaning anyone who works for a living,” Ratzenberger says. “So why would a child watching that depiction want to go into that? They don’t understand the manual dexterity, the intelligence needed to create something.”
Growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., a factory town, the son of a truck driver got a different view. His father started out driving heavy equipment in World War II. He loved not only the “romance of the road,” but also the “feeling of the big machine,” Ratzenberger says. He was also a Civil War scholar, a history buff who reveled in learning everything he could about the time period.
While NBT aims to directly steer students into trades, some of Ratzenberger’s upcoming projects focus on correcting public perception with his own TV productions.
He is executive producer of a PBS documentary in the works, Industrial Tsunami, which examines the shrinking manufacturing workforce. He hopes to create some television PSAs to encourage kids and parents to look into blue-collar careers.
“The big mistake Hollywood makes is thinking that’s all truck drivers are — just truck drivers,” he says. And is it any wonder, says the actor, when a proposal for a TV show set at a truckstop he wrote a few years back confused Hollywood executives. They had no idea what a truckstop was.
“They fly everywhere they go,” he says.
For more information, visit: www.ratzenberger.com