Professionals learn to teach masonry skills; Institute provides bricks and mortar boards


John W. Totten scooped up mortar with his trowel and applied it to a waist-high wall of bricks taking shape before him and fellow worker Janet Yount, then scraped the excess from the sides.

Totten hails from New York, and Yount is a Kentuckian. Their job was a practice run -- not for ahuge project like a stadium or mansion, but to improve their teaching skills.

They were among about 180 people from 31 states and three Canadian provinces hard at work yesterday in the International Masonry Institute's Instructor Certification Program, operating this week on the Linthicum Heights campus of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies.

The program, which involves 200 hours of work over five years, teaches trowel-trade instructors recent techniques in masonry and the classroom techniques needed to teach those skills to apprentices.

Totten trains apprentices at a regional Job Corps center in Westchester, N.Y. He has been plastering for 22 years but never developed skills in bricklaying.

"With this economy, everything [for masonry workers] is wide open," he said, with workers in such high demand that his union local is turning to other states and recruiting retirees to meet construction demands.

Colleen K. Muldoon, IMI's coordinator of education programs, said masonry has opened up to women to meet the demand.

Totten came to the Linthicum Heights campus to cross-train so that he can expose his students to every trowel trade -- block, cement, stone, marble, tile, mosaic, terrazzo, plastering and refractory work -- and to learn the latest safety and classroom techniques.

The practice was constant yesterday, under tents set up on the grounds.

By the time the program ends tomorrow, the trainers-in-training will have participated in courses on architectural drawing, computer skills, lesson-plan writing, dealing with substance abuse among trainees and job safety.

"Some of these instructors live, eat and breathe their craft," said Clarence Nichols, deputy director of IMI's regional training programs, "but this program helps them teach it correctly with the extra skills mason workers need to be professional."

Steven L. Herrick came from Washington state to enter the program and can look forward to a week of such training in each of the next four years before he attains certification.

He said he has worked with tile for 22 years and started teaching the trade two years ago. "I know my job," he said, "but when it comes to the classroom, you can't just take what comes from your hands and put it into the students' heads."

Bob L. Mion Jr., who teaches terrazzo at IMI's National Training Center at Fort Ritchie, in Washington County, said that both the training and the exposure to instructors is crucial, especially in his field. Airports and subway stations, among others, are switching from tile to the more colorful, intricate and durable terrazzo.

New York City is flooding his classes with apprentices who need training, Mion said. "Our job is to get them productive on day one, and with new products and techniques, they need to move along with the times," he said.

For many of the trowel masters, the meetings are a chance to marvel at their fellow craftsmen's expertise.

Stephen W. Martini, a fourth-generation bricklayer from St. Louis who will graduate tomorrow from the certification program, watched in wonder as Michael C. Menagazzi, a "terrazzo master" from Los Angeles, smoothed colorful marble chips into a cement mixture. Days later, the result will be a smooth surface patterned with earth tones and stone.

"It's incredible the way these people appreciate their craft," Martini said over the grinding of the polishing machines, "It makes you want to master all of these trades."

Virgil O. Brooks Jr. was a plasterer for 53 years and taught for 14 at a Florida Job Corps center before he retired last year. While directing a crew of 10 on the intricacies of plastering, he said the meetings are a chance for masonry workers to share their secrets.

"Others think plastering looks easy, but then they do it with me for a while and they start to feel the aches and pains in their shoulders."

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