Boys in Workshops - NYA Program - 1938

Next to construction, workshops are the biggest development in the out-of-school program. NYA supervisors canvass the possibilities for placement in municipal workshops, such as city waterworks, fire departments, and general maintenance shops.

Since there is a NYA policy that these youth workers are not to displace any regular employees, only a small number of boys can be employed in this type of shop. A large number of them show mechanical ability and keen interest in carpentry, cabinetmaking, automobile mechanics, and other manual skills.

So NYA has set up its own workshops where boys may learn as they repair and produce equipment for public institutions. In the early days, many of these shops were limited in the variety and value of their output.

Often only hand tools were available, and boys did woodcarving, built bird houses for city parks and light recreational equipment for schools, and repaired toys for community agencies. There was something wrong with this picture; neither were the boys getting fundamental training and work experience nor were communities deriving important benefits from the work of youth.

Today the standards for NYA workshops are high. We have seen many that are well equipped both with hand tools and with modern power machines. It has become the usual practice to employ skilled workers as NYA shop foremen. Their duties are twofold—to teach the boys the fundamentals of shop work and to train them to meet standards of work habits required in private industry.

We have selected for description several that illustrate the present trends in this phase of the NYA program. Massachusetts: Twenty-four out-of-school boys with mechanical aptitudes and interests are working as helpers in the maintenance shops of the Boston Fire Department.

Under the regular supervisory staff of the department, these boys are assisting in the repair and painting of fire trucks, the rebuilding and repair of batteries, the repair of fire hose and upholstery, and in the machine shop.

One boy works in the bookkeeping office, where he helps in keeping the department's inventory. Some of these boys will undoubtedly find regular employment with municipal fire departments, and others are gaining experience that can lead to jobs in privately owned shops.

California: San Diego has a system of city shops well equipped with up-to-date machinery. In these shops the Department of Public Works is giving 16 out-of-school NYA boys a chance to get enough work experience to qualify them as apprentices in a variety of trades.

These boys are helpers to skilled city employees in these different municipal shops: Automotive-electric shop (for general motor repair, wheel aligning, axle straightening, etc., for all city-owned vehicles); Brake shop (repairs, adjustments, and relining); Automobile paint and upholstery shops; Machine shop (lathing, drilling, reboring, tool-making, etc.); Radio shop (installation, repairing, and maintaining of short-wave radios in police cars and motorcycles); Print shop (this shop prints all city publications); Carpentry and blacksmith shop; Meter and automatic signal shop (repair and adjustment of water and gas meters, and the repair and maintenance of automotive traffic signals).

The 16 boys working in these shops are getting a start in definite trades, and the city is benefiting from the extended services it can provide because of the work the boys are doing. Missouri. In Kansas City we visited a workshop sponsored by the public schools, in which 80 NYA boys work in three shifts.

The shop has excellent light power equipment, including a Sander, planer, joiner, band saw, cut-off saw, jigsaw, and emery wheels. The school board sends orders for school furniture and equipment to this shop. When we were there, the boys had just completed 50 individual blackboard easels for primary grades.

We saw several other examples of their products: bookshelves, chairs, and ping-pong paddles and other recreational equipment for public schools. One NYA boy was in charge of the hand-tool room. It was his job to check in and out the hundreds of tools in use. Another boy served as timekeeper. The NYA supervisor of this project was a skilled carpenter.

"Most of these boys learn fast," he told us. "That's because they're interested. You know, this is the first time lots of them have ever had a chance to work. We start them out with hand tools, and, when they've learned how to use them, they graduate to the machines."

"We work here just like in any shop. If work doesn't come up to scratch, the boys do it over. Some learn faster than others, and that's only natural. Lots of these boys come back on their own time and make things for themselves. I encourage them to do it, because the more they work the more they'll learn."

Tennessee: In the winter of 1936–37, the disastrous flood waters of the Mississippi inundated more than 20 schools in Dyer County. When the waters receded, it was found that these buildings had suffered serious structural damage and that chairs, desks, tables, bookcases, and other equipment that had stood several feet deep in mud and water could no longer be used.

The county did not have enough money to repair either the buildings or the furniture. Early in the summer of 1937, 15 boys in the NYA workshop in Dyersburg began to renovate the buildings and equipment. Some of the schoolhouses were leveled up on their foundations, repaired, and repainted.

More than 500 student desks were rebuilt; where the wood was completely spoiled, the iron was salvaged, and the boys constructed new desks. NYA boys also reclaimed teachers' desks, tables, and other damaged equipment. The county furnished needed materials and some supervision.

West Virginia: Fires in the Central Junior High School and the Third Ward Elementary School of Elkins put more than 1800 pieces of school furniture out of commission. While the buildings were being repaired by the county, 21 NYA boys moved this damaged furniture to their workshop.

Seventeen hundred school desks and 110 armchairs were refinished. This work required the removing of paint and varnish, straightening, plaining, sanding, staining, shellacking, varnishing, and repainting.

Besides this repair, these boys built the following new school equipment: 13 bookcases, 10 typewriting tables, 8 reading tables, a desk, a drawing table, and a 21-drawer filing cabinet. The county Board of Education supplied $925 for materials and the pay of a skilled foreman; NYA spent $425 in wages to youth and $125 for supervision. For a little less than $1,500, these two schools were re-equipped for use.

Kentucky: We took a trip through some of the eastern mountain counties to see what NYA was doing for the poverty-stricken youth in this stranded-population area. We had read the report of a study of 1676 NYA boys and girls from these pauper counties.

They had an average of six years of schooling, [Note 1] they usually came from families of more than seven members; 1,316 of them had never held any kind of job, temporary or permanent, before NYA work; only 18 had ever had any kind of vocational training either in school or as apprentices.

Well-organized workshops have been one of NYA's answers to these appalling conditions in which youth are living in the Kentucky mountains. Because schools are poorly equipped, there is a desperate need for all types of furniture, which these destitute counties cannot afford to buy.

We visited a NYA workshop at West Liberty, in Morgan County. It is situated on the grounds of a new consolidated school which WPA built of native stone. We were told many times that this school is the finest in the whole mountain region of Kentucky.

The building it replaced is still standing; in any developed community in the country this dilapidated structure would have been condemned many years ago. Morgan County had no money to equip its new school. Enrollment increased from slightly over 200 pupils to 450.

Forty-three NYA boys in the West Liberty workshop have equipped this building; they made not only tablet armchairs, primary school chairs, pupils' and teachers' desks, bookcases, reading tables, waste paper baskets, filing cabinets, science laboratory tables with gas and electric outlets, and home economics equipment, but also ventilating grilles, lockers, panels for girls' and boys' lavatories, and shower partitions.

The boys in this shop also make and repair furniture for the rural schools of the county. They have built retaining walls, sidewalks, cisterns, and sanitary toilets for schools. Playgrounds have been improved and equipped with apparatus made in the shop.

The school board furnishes the materials with which the boys work.

NYA employs a skilled supervisor, in this instance a man with a background of carpentry and teaching. "Many of the boys in this shop walk ten to fifteen miles to work here," he said. "That's what these jobs mean to them. And do they change!"

"You wouldn't recognize them for the same boys after they've been on the job awhile. Of course, there's a few ornery ones, but maybe you'd be ornery too, if you'd had as little to eat as they've had for a long time. I'll say most of these boys work hard and want to learn all they can. There's a lot of them that work on their own time, too. I don't know any of them that ever saw a lathe before they started here."

Arkansas: NYA workshops here produce school furniture, street signs, concrete park benches, fire ladders, music racks, and mailbox posts. When we were in Arkansas in January 1938, the first baby incubator had been built and was being tested.

The rate of premature births (and consequently of infant mortality) is extremely high in some of the rural sections of this State, where hospital facilities are practically non-existent. Since many of these rural homes do not have electricity, NYA boys were experimenting in heating this incubator by brick, sand, or hot water bottles.

We have heard that since our visit this unique workshop product has been perfected, and more are being built for county health agents to use. The cost of materials for the incubator is $6.50.

Note 1: As the school terms are short and attendance is very irregular, six years of schooling in this region are not equivalent to six years in a good common school.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Boys in Workshops." in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 37-42.

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