Words: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Seth Schiavo
Editor’s Note: We had the opportunity to sit down with second-year masonry student Seth Schiavo from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the time of this interview, Seth was gearing up for graduation from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. Following graduation, he plans to start his apprenticeship with a masonry company. We would like to thank JagClamp for sponsoring this series and Seth for talking with us.
Masonry Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Seth Schiavo: I live in Lancaster, PA. I’m 25 years old and I’m in my second year of masonry education at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. I graduate in May 2020.
M.M.: How did you decide on masonry as your career choice?
S.S.: I originally was going to go to Thaddeus Stevens College for carpentry as my dad is a carpenter and a woodworker. He has been doing it all his life and I knew I wanted to take some kind of step in his shoes. I look up to my dad a lot and I knew I wanted to do something that would make him and my mom proud. While I was in the process of looking at the carpentry program I stumbled upon the masonry program.
I’ve always enjoyed brick architecture and the timeless style that it provides. You can incorporate masonry everywhere. You can use it on an old church or a commercial application like a hotel or hospital. There is such a wide variety of applications and detail orientation. The artistic side and hard work that you put into it really caught my eye.
M.M.: You mentioned your dad works in carpentry, do you have any masons in your family at all?
S.S.: Nope, it is just me.
M.M.: Tell us a little bit about your education and what your classes have been like?
S.S.: We have shop class every day from 7:30 a.m. until noon. My first year was a lot of theory classes, learning different applications of masonry, different flashing techniques, water penetration and all that kind of stuff. I learned different bond styles and then in shop class I learned trowel skills, laying brick leads and block leads, laying to the line, and stone veneer. I learned a little bit of everything in shop class, but just the basics.
We were using fake mortar so you have the opportunity to learn and this is when you can make mistakes and then learn from them. That’s what we did my whole first year pretty much. We’d have theory class and we would go over stuff in the classroom. Then we would go back to the shop and actually get to apply all the stuff our teachers taught us. Now I’m in my second year at Thaddeus Stevens, and what’s really cool is that we (second-year students) actually get to build a house that they put on the market.
Each second-year program, masons, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers will play a part or role in building a twin house in the development. So as a mason, we put up a firewall. It was an 8-inch CMU wall going all the way up to the roofline to separate the two homes. We also did a brick veneer wall, stacked stone at the porch, and thin brick inside, so we were able to get our hands on every application that is out there for modern masonry.
We were able to build something that is going to be there forever. It was definitely a huge learning experience that I’ll never forget. I’ve learned so much this past year, and I think it’s so cool that Thaddeus Stevens has that program where you get to build a house. I think that’s really unique, I’ve never heard of any other schools doing that. It’s cool, Glen Gery donates all of the brick, and a local block manufacturer donates the block. Everything is donated and then the home is sold to a lower-income family. They are beautiful homes marketed at a lower cost and were built for free. So it actually benefits everyone, it’s just really cool.
M.M.: Amazing. Can you tell us about any other projects that you’ve done while you’ve been in school?
S.S.: Right now, we just finished doing a whole section on fireplaces; the theory, functionality behind conventional and Rumford-style fireplaces. It was a lot to learn as anyone in the industry knows. There are a lot of parts that go into fireplaces, and there’s a lot of problem-solving. Each situation that you do with a fireplace is going to be different depending on where it’s going and the dimensions of that space. However, after we learned about them, we each had a chance to build one in the shop. We designed and built the firebox, put in the throat and the damper, and built the fireplace all the way up past the chimney.
M.M.: Do you have any advice for anyone your age who is interested in the masonry industry?
S.S.: I would recommend going into the masonry industry if you have an interest, especially because there is such a demand for masons. I actually worked for a commercial company over the summer here in Pennsylvania, and 65% of their masons are older than 50, so the demand for young people to get into this trade is so high. There’s so much opportunity to grow and the money is pretty decent. It’s a comfortable wage that you’ll be making and you get to do such a wide variety of work.
We’re outdoors most of the time and each day you can do something new, that’s what I like about it. You could be a veteran mason, and each day you’re still going to come across something new that you’re going to have to figure out. You can walk away having learned something new that day, which I think is really cool. I think it’s cool to keep developing skills throughout your career.
M.M.: Do you have an apprenticeship or have you had one while at school?
S.S.: I will be graduating in May 2020 with my associate’s degree. I had an interview this morning for an apprenticeship, but have had two apprenticeships that were offered to me by two companies. I’m just trying to figure out which direction I want to take. They’re both commercial companies that I have actually worked for this past summer and they offered me an apprenticeship when I graduate. The other offer is from another company in the area as well. So, I’m trying to weigh out the differences and make my decision.
M.M.: What are some challenges you have faced while you have been working through your program?
S.S.: I’d say one of the biggest challenges is balancing your time between academics and shop. You clearly care more about your shop class, that’s why you’re at school, but you have to keep up with your academics and keep your grades up because they are just as important. I’d say time management is something that has really improved since I’ve started my program. As far as challenges that I’ve faced in masonry, I’d say getting the trowel skills definitely takes a while and you can’t give up. You have to give it some time and it becomes muscle memory over time.
I’m sure any older masons that you speak to will tell you that. Or, if you see older masons work, it’s like they can do it with their eyes closed. It becomes second nature over time, and just getting that feel and touch for the different materials takes a lot of repetition to get good at it. You can’t expect it to be perfect right away. It’s gonna take some time. So, I’d say if you’re not doing the best at first, don’t give up, give it some time. Put the time in and you’ll get a reward in the end.
If you do something wrong, learn from that mistake, move forward and you will do it better next time. You can always improve. It’s so easy to get down on yourself and not want to move forward especially when you’re learning something new that is difficult but for me. It drives me to keep going and to figure out what I can do to improve myself and my skill. You have to thrive off of failure in a way. There is a lot of problem-solving.
M.M.: What has your experience working with veteran and older masons in the industry?
S.S.: In between my first and second years at Thaddeus Stevens I worked for a commercial company, one of the biggest on the East Coast. I worked there all summer as a tender and I worked pretty much with mason veterans. They were mostly older guys, I guess I feel in all honesty with some of the stuff they say, you just have to have a thick skin and not take it personally. If you show that you’re interested and that you want to learn, they will help you and will respect you. It’s definitely a trade of mutual respect. If you respect them, work hard, and help them, they’ll do the same for you.
There are times when it’s definitely intimidating and it’s your first year out in this industry and you’re with guys that have been in it for 35 years. I always just try to remember that at one point, these guys were in my shoes once, you just have to watch them as much as you can. I would always try to get to the jobsite a bit early so I could get a little bit ahead stocking and getting mud out. So that I could watch them, and I even try to get on the wall sometimes if I could or even strut their joints up. Whatever I could do to get more involved.
If you show that you want to learn and that you’re passionate, by all means, they’re going to let you help. It’s easier for them, it helps them out, and these companies need young people. They’re willing to give us a lot of opportunities to get out there and put some units on the wall if we are able and can get better at our skills.
Going back to why I chose masonry, it’s because I saw the demand and the opportunities that would be provided. The demand is just going to continue to grow as people retire and all those job slots open up and they need people to fill them because the industry isn’t going to go away, just the workforce is.
M.M.: In your opinion as a young mason, how could the industry itself and the MCAA get more people interested in a masonry career?
S.S.: I think there still seems to be some sort of stigma against the construction industry as a whole, which is so silly because there’s so much opportunity. You can get there whether you go to a trade school or if you go right on the job and start working as a laborer. You can end up with a fantastic career with a good salary with little to no debt versus getting a 4-6 year degree and having over 6 figures of debt.
I think those opportunities and the benefits of choosing a trade, especially being a mason in my opinion, needs to be more publicized. Not only is it a good opportunity, but as a person in the trade it’s very rewarding work, and I think that more people would enjoy it than they know.
Skills USA is also really good to get young people involved, and I know SPEC MIX® does the Bricklayer 500 Jr.® Series. I actually competed in that! All that kind of stuff will definitely motivate young people to try the trade. I think a lot of young people tend to shy away from masonry because it’s hard work, and it is. But, with HydroMobile and some of the other equipment that’s been coming out, they are providing ways to reduce the fatigue on our body.
Using the HydroMobile, you can basically be working at waist level all day, and the longevity of your career will definitely increase thanks to those machines. I know when I worked during the summer, they pretty much had HydroMobile’s at every jobsite and the masons love them because there are really no downfalls to them. They’re easy to put up, you can always work at a comfortable height, and they’re safe- what more could you ask for?
M.M.: What was the experience like when you competed?
SS: Just being there and being able to talk to different people in the industry, and get different people’s opinions was just really cool to me. It felt like a big masonry fair.
M.M.: What is going to keep you interested in masonry?
S.S.: Each day is different. You see more and more new products coming out with different applications. Being able to go on different jobs and do different applications of masonry, whether it be brick or stone, and driving past jobs I worked on over the summer that are done now, is so awesome. I like driving by with my friends or with my girlfriend and being able to say ‘I played a part in this beautiful building.’ I think that’s really cool, and that keeps me interested. I also like moving from project to project and getting to be a part of all these buildings getting put up.
I think the jobsite environment is really cool, especially in commercial buildings. You get to meet so many new people, and not just in your trade. You meet people electricians and carpenters, and there is camaraderie amongst everyone. Everyone is there to make money but you can have fun while doing that. I’ve worked with guys that I consider friends, and you can make it a very positive experience where you don’t even feel like you’re at work sometimes.
M.M.: What is your favorite part about being a mason?
S.S.: As simple as it sounds, when you’re putting up a brick wall, strike it, and you brush it, polish the joints and then you just stand back and look at it, it’s just so rewarding to see that finished product. All the hard work, and sweat that was made while you built it, and then you can stand back and look at it and it was all worth it. Seeing that finished product and how beautiful it is and knowing how many people it will touch going forward is just so special. I find it so cool to be a part of a craft that has been around as long as it has.
M.M.: Where do you see yourself in five years?
S.S.: In five years I would just love to be a full-fledged bricklayer. I want to be out there putting buildings up. Down the road, I would like to work my way up to a foreman position. Even though I’m going to be graduating with my associate’s degree, I still have a lot to learn. My goal in five years is to truly be a skilled mason, that’s really all I’m focused on at this point. If I look past five years, I’d want to be out there being able to put bricks up, do a good job, and to fit in with the older guys.