After nearly 40 years in the construction industry, Mike Guertin turned his focus to training and education, with closing the construction industry skills gap as one of his goals. He writes for construction magazines like Fine Homebuilding, Professional Deck Builder, The Journal of Light Construction and Tools of Trade, in between in-person training events at tradeshows like JLC Live, DeckExpo, IBS and the Remodeling Show. He often uses an OLFA knife in his work and during demonstrations. OLFA caught up with him to talk knife safety and closing the skills gap.
How do you use an OLFA knife?
I was first introduced to the brand more than a decade ago, and now I use the knives in a variety of applications.
When I worked with DuPont and their Tyvek ThermaWrap R5.0 exterior insulation, we used the OLFA “pizza cutter” [RTY-3/DX]. It’s an industrial-version rotary fabric cutter, so it made it through the dense ThermaWrap fibers. It was the only cutter that lasted; the steel that the blade is made of is much more durable than some of the other cutters we tried.
For the last five years, I’ve been demoing asphalt shingle roofing at JLC Live, and I’ve been using the heavy-duty snap-off blades in those demos.
I use the same blades to cut one-inch to two-inch rigid foam insulation on the high-performance homes I work on. The long, thick, extendable blades slice straight through the three most common types of rigid foam – polyiso, EPS and XPS. The OLFA blades leave a clean-cut edge without the mess a handsaw often makes.
A lot of people look at a price point when they’re buying, but others look at performance characteristics, and some of what a brand like OLFA gives users are extended life and less downtime – no constant running to the truck to get a blade. Lots of good contractors go for the premium stuff to avoid those annoyances.
We notice in the field some products last longer than others, and OLFA knives last much longer than generic blades. People don’t realize how fast blades go dull when cutting something like mineral wool or fiberglass insulation. The little extra we pay for a premium blade pays off, through less downtime changing out blades, and burning through fewer blades on a project.
What do other contractors/fellow tradesmen need to remember when using knives?
I’ve been working with and training high school students at several career tech centers in southern New England. To break the ice when I meet a new group, I ask them what they think the most dangerous jobsite tool is. They come up with all kinds of answers, with table saws and circular saws usually topping the list, but in my book, it’s handheld knives. I’ve been to the emergency room more often for knife cuts than anything else. So here are some important tips to remember:
When you’re handling a knife, make sure your body is out of harm’s way from the outfeed area – the area where the knife blade ends up when it’s done cutting. When you’re putting a lot of pressure on the knife to cut something and you’re not aware of where the blade is going to be once it cuts through the material, you can end up with an injury.
You use knives every day for dozens of little operations, so it’s important to be aware of the blade at all times. The key is respecting their sharpness and using them properly to help avoid injury. At the same time, always use a sharp blade. The sharper the blade, the easier it is to cut, and it’s actually less likely to create a situation where you might hurt yourself.
You mentioned that education is one way to close the construction industry skills gap. What are some ways to motivate young people to join a trade?
I’d start by introducing the discussion in the classroom – seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders are at the opportune age to start thinking about what they like to do and what they don’t like to do, in order to eventually choose a career.
You hear a lot of parents and teachers telling kids to go to college because they’ll make more money, but the numbers show you’ll probably make as much money or more in the construction industry than in most careers you need a degree in, over both the short and long term.
Educators can inform their students that there are plenty of opportunities in tradecraft, home building, commercial construction and more. They don’t need four more years of school; they can jump right in, work with their hands without being tethered to a desk, stay active and have fun. There are plenty of opportunities for advancement to become highly skilled workers and project managers. And it’s one of the few career paths where someone can own their own business without a lot of upfront investment
How can current tradesmen do their part to close the skills gap?
The best thing tradesmen can do to help their own business and the industry in general is to hire young people who don’t yet have a full skillset and let them learn on the job. Lots of contractors only want to hire young workers with three or five years of experience, but we’re not going to get people at that level without giving eager yet inexperienced workers the chance.
Hire people with little or no experience and train them the way you want them to work for you. It can be hard for a small contractor to take on a young worker who isn’t carrying their own weight for a year or two, but look forward. This person will likely stick around for several years beyond the learning curve, and become a productive and profitable employee.