September 12, 2023

Building Works: Building A New Preservation Trades Network in Rhode Island

Rhode Island has some of the oldest building stock in the country. Here in Providence, almost 90 percent of the city’s buildings are more than 50 years old. Historic buildings are where we live, work, learn, and gather. It’s our job at the Providence Preservation Society (PPS) to advocate for these properties, big and small, so they keep working for everyone.

We’ve known for a long time that Rhode Island, doesn’t have nearly enough people working in the preservation trades. This labor shortage is a national issue and the preservation employers we’ve surveyed in Rhode Island unanimously report skill shortages as their top concern.

In 2020, Providence Preservation Society began offering trades training programs that paid unemployed Rhode Islanders to learn traditional building skills, starting with a six-week historic window restoration program, the bread and butter of historic preservation. Restoring wood windows teaches novices some trades basics that will serve them well outside of the program—painting, glazing, wood repair, attention to detail, and creative problem solving—and there’s no shortage of work locally. Heritage Restoration Inc.’s (PPS’s lead partner) hands-on instruction is augmented with preservation 101, architectural walking tours, meetings with industry experts, and job readiness workshops.

Three people take part in a demonstration during Shop Night at the Building Works building in Providence, Rhode Island.

photo by: Providence Preservation Society

Visitors at a community shop night watch a demonstration at Providence Preservation Society's Building Works, which was funded in part by the Moe Family Fund for Statewide and Local Partners.

In the final three weeks of training, PPS offers one-on-one career guidance and then supports trainees as they transition into new careers or additional training in the preservation trades. Happily, 80 percent of our graduates have found full-time employment, including several who have started their own small businesses.

However, paying participants and providing transportation support, daily meals, and a fully outfitted toolkit is expensive. We’ve funded our efforts through private philanthropy and a mix of private and government grants, including support from the National Trust’s Moe Family Fund for Statewide and Local Partners in 2021, which awarded grants focused on key themes from the Preservation Priorities Task Force in partnership with the National Preservation Partners Network. These funds helped us grow to the next level.

Centering Equity in Historic Trades Training

As the training program has matured, we’ve very intentionally kept equity at the heart of what we do. Providence has stark racial and economic inequalities, and many neighborhoods have received far less investment than others. The Window and Workforce Training Program addresses a critical labor shortage, but PPS hopes that it can be a tool for social justice and economic mobility as well.

We recruit participants who face barriers to employment, ranging from racial and gender identity to a history of incarceration, housing insecurity, immigration status, and age. Case managers provide individualized services to trainees as needed, such as English language support, housing assistance, and other social services, and we continue to invest in graduates long after the conclusion of the program. By focusing training programs and educational resources on serving historically excluded communities, PPS is reorienting how historic preservation serves the city’s residents.

One of the biggest challenges to expanding our trades training has been space—we needed a place where we can reliably offer workforce training and where new small businesses can find their footing. In our first two years, training mostly took place outdoors, at the mercy of fickle New England weather, with occasional visits to our training partner’s professional shop.

Two people working on some window restoration at Building Works in Providence, Rhode Island.

photo by: Providence Preservation Society

Participants in one of Building Works Training programs work on restoring some historic windows.

A group of trainees and Providence Preservation Society's Building Works working on a window.

photo by: Providence Preservation Society

Participants in the Building Works training program receive individualized support as the learn the skills needed to work in the field.

When Morgan Thomson graduated from our first window restoration program and launched their own business, workspace was a top priority. Access to affordable, indoor space meant Thomson could work year-round and rely on this as their full-time job. A shop was necessary for us to grow our training model. Thomson said, “Thanks to the window restoration training, I started my own small, queer-owned business soon after graduating in 2020, and I have a strong roster of clients. PPS helped me get on my feet with some necessities like seed funding, a workspace, and basic materials. After taking the program, I feel like I’ve finally found a niche where my love for building and fixing can meet my creative and artistic side.”

The Moe Family Fund grant helped determine the physical, financial, and community assets needed to launch a preservation trades workshop space; a space that could be used for our trades training and rented by tradespeople or homeowners interested in furthering their own projects.

Ultimately, PPS leased a centrally located workshop space in a historic manufacturing facility on Sims Avenue and the launch of PPS’s historic trades initiative called Building Works. Building Works unites our workforce training programs with our reinvigorated efforts to support residents with building repair and maintenance.

An architectural rendering of different spaces in the Community Workshop for Building Works.

photo by: Providence Preservation Society

One of the renderings of the Community Workshop for Building Works.

In the first six months in our new space, we’ve already completed a third cycle of our successful Window and Workforce Training Program, as well as debuted a menu of workshops aimed at homeowners, hobbyists, and DIYers. Classes are offered in a range of formats (including some Spanish language options) and on a sliding scale, keeping accessibility front and center.

Essential Lessons for Historic Trades Programs

Starting this work and scaling it up has not been easy, and there have been many lessons learned along the way (with more to come, no doubt!).

Partners matter. We know how to do good restoration—but we have much to learn when it comes to the social piece of training and community building. If preservation organizations hope to serve new and expanded audiences, we need to make an upfront effort to forge complementary partnerships, to understand the systemic forces playing out in our local communities, and to expand our thinking about mission delivery.

Throughout this process, we’ve spent more time considering challenges like childcare, English language support, and transportation than we expected. And our local partners have helped us every step of the way.

This work is resource intensive, both in terms of dollars and staff time. PPS has a small staff that continues to carry out the day-to-day services that we’ve always offered, even as we’ve expanded into this new territory. Bringing on a full-time staffer whose sole focus was on historic trades training and property maintenance resources really accelerated our program. Our next challenge is to create a position that is integrated into the budget (rather than grant funded) so that we can maintain staffing continuity and institutional knowledge year over year.

Senators Whitehouse and Reed visiting Building Works during a Window Restoration Workshop at Building Works.

photo by: Providence Preservation Society

A group photo featuring Building Works trainees and Senators Whitehouse and Reed in February 2023.

Preservation is a team sport. Through this work, we’ve come to see that our industry falls into three categories: hands-on preservationists, paperwork preservationists, and community preservationists. Those of us who work on tax credits or National Register nominations rarely work alongside those of us who can repair plaster and lath or those who interpret intangible cultural heritage. And while expertise certainly has its place, we would all do well to mix and mingle a bit more.

PPS is slowly but surely expanding the definition of who’s a preservationist and building out the resources our neighbors might need to keep Providence’s historic buildings safe and serviceable. And our national network of preservation friends and colleagues has been indispensable to the evolution of PPS’s Building Works program—we aren’t in this alone, and it’s inspiring to learn from and cheerlead similar programs taking root across the country.

As preservationists so often tout, every state and city is special, and what works for one place may not be the right fit in another. But together, we’re strengthening community and architectural fabric.

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Kelsey Mullen is the director of education at Providence Preservation Society in Rhode Island.

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