Growing up in Construction

Some blue-collar observations & lessons for life

Construction crew and concrete truck on job site.

I spent nearly 20 years in school, have multiple degrees, run companies, and live on the other side of the world in a city of 25 million. But I never forget that I grew up in my family’s small construction company in rural Maine.

This means I NEVER forget that our family’s nice house, cars, clothes, toys, and my education came from moving dirt and pouring concrete. Day after day. For decades. And my dad is only now slowing down, after 60 years of seven-day workweeks.

I’m as white-collar as they come, though I’m also an engineer and very much my father’s son. And while I mostly play with electrons, write software, and manage teams, I never forget the valuable lessons learned from growing up around machinery and men who work hard with their hands every day.

And thus, some lessons & observations for you to ponder:

The first rule is that everyone works hard, and by hard, I mean long days, often literally in the ditches with a shovel, wheeling concrete, stripping forms, and operating machinery. In the sun, rain, and snow that define Maine’s seasons.

Some of this comes from the New England work ethic. You show up at 6 am and work, as the small team depends on you, other crews and vendors depend on you, and the project depends on you. You work hard and get stuff done, simple as this.

A construction crew and a job site are very small places. Folks either add value or they don’t, and the difference is very obvious. The best teammates always look to be useful, learn new things, help out, clean up, and organize the tools or the site. They find ways to be more useful on every project they are on. I hope you do this, too.

Likewise, those who don’t contribute usually neglect all these things and detract from the team, from efficiency, and from getting the project done. In an industry where reputation matters a lot, this often gets them sent on their way or laid off when the slow season or economy requires economizing. Construction is good at shedding dead weight. Perhaps you could do better in your organization, too.

I hope this is not you and that you always add value, at any skill level. Learn more, find things to do, ask where and how you can do more. It will be noticed, I assure you.

This is construction, not rocket science, but it’s surprisingly varied and complex. Project requirements, site conditions, other crews, and the weather often all act to make it new and novel. Not to mention broken tools, short schedules, and continual changes.

Solving these problems in safe and efficient ways is what separates the men from the boys (sadly most teams still all male) and is key to promotions and more money. For there is always a shortage of folks who can and will tackle problems, find solutions, and move things along every day. I’m sure it’s the same in your industry.

In construction, this means finding workable solutions and building things. Things that will last for decades, or even a century. So no flimsy solutions, no lightweight stuff, but things we are quite certain will work for a very long time.

After all, we’re often placing tons of dirt, steel, and concrete, things that are very hard to move later, so don’t mess it up, but do get it done. And any practical decision today is much better than a perfect one tomorrow.

In construction, things never go completely right. In fact, stuff often goes wrong and equipment breaks all the time. And you’re often fighting the weather, and sometimes the customer, too. The trick is to stay positive through it all, adapting and finding ways to get things done. Did I mention how important it is to get things done?

Bad attitudes stick out like a sore thumb on a crew or a site, and not unlike in the military, being angry or unhappy all the time can get you injured or even killed. So take things in stride, expect the unexpected, and find positive solutions.

Construction sites are full of powerful tools and heavy machinery, both of which break all the time, costing money and slowing the project. So keeping a watchful eye out is important to avoiding slowdowns, maintenance problems, or worse. Proactively fixing things before they break is a mix of attitude and skill, and greatly appreciated, in the ditches and I’m sure also in your office.

This means paying attention, looking for problems, and making things safer on site by moving fences, covering holes, separating fire & flammables, and so on. It also means addressing machinery’s funny noises, cleaning fuel filters, greasing things, and keeping tools in good order. Your business likely has similar things, and you’ll do well to stay on top of them, solving problems before they become problems.

Construction is generally safe, but, like many things, it greatly depends on the culture of the teams and leaders involved. And no matter how careful everyone is, bad things can, and sadly, do happen.

After all, we’re in the mud surrounded by heavy machinery and moving equipment, often using flammable gas & various fuels, with powerful hand tools like chainsaws all around. If that’s not dangerous enough, we use explosives to deal with especially difficult bedrock that gets in our way. It’s all pretty safe, but only as safe as the least safe teammate, tool, or procedure. Blowing things up is fun, right up until it isn’t.

Therefore, constant vigilance and training are critical, with everyone looking out for everyone else, using common sense, and paying attention. With those things, it’s fairly easy to be safe, but without them, it’s impossible. And while your business may not be as dangerous, there are plenty of opportunities to improve the safety of the business itself, if not for your team and employees, too.

Swearing is a way of life in construction, though less than you might expect. Still, it’s pretty eye-opening for kids to be around, and most cannot be discussed here, nor in polite company. That’s too bad, for construction crews, not unlike sailors, have a colorful repertoire of interesting expressions that have evolved over a very long time.

But in the larger picture, swearing, jokes, and light-hearted ribbing are expected, in part to compensate for the hard work, sometimes dreary conditions, and dangers all around. As in the military, it also binds teams together and builds camaraderie.

Construction is a dirty business, literally. First, there is the obvious dirt, which is not too bad, until it’s wet, at which point it’s mud, and all over you and everything else.

Then there is gasoline, diesel fuel, and everyone’s favorite: grease, which gets everywhere and on everything you might touch. Along with hydraulic oil, which leaks from everything, gets on everything, including all over you and everything else.

Every shop and every home has strong industrial soap, full of strong solvents and grit to get all this stuff off so you can drive home at the end of the day without looking like a coal miner. And you get used to it.

When you grow up literally covered in grease and dirt, it makes it a lot easier to really get your hands dirty doing the detailed work required to be successful. So don’t worry about getting your hands dirty. It comes off, eventually.

In construction, things are built to last. Decades, even a century or more. So you have to know what you are doing, do not take shortcuts, and do make sure you are doing the right thing every time. People’s safety and lives literally depend on your work.

This is very different from most software or products designed to last a season or two, where speed and cost are often paramount. Building things for forever doesn’t mean those things aren’t important, but permanence, good engineering, and excellent execution are critical, too. I hope that’s true in your life and work, too.

Construction crews are similar to white-collar teams, but different at the same time. Relatively unlike office work, these can be hard men, and not all good, nor hard-working, and realistically, a strong touch is sometimes required.

On the other hand, a good leader in any endeavor can generate lots of trust and good morale. My dad was very successful at this. Most of his guys were around for years, and many were around for decades. He treated and led them right, and they stayed forever, in an industry famous for short-tenures and high turnover.

Author as young child with his dad on a yellow bulldozer in 1960s.
Author as young child with his dad on a yellow bulldozer in 1960s.
My dad and I on our bulldozer, age 2.

Growing up around all this was great, as you get to see how things work, and learn all the lessons mentioned above, and more. While it can be dangerous and is not for everyone, exposure to how things get built and the hard-working teams that build them is good for everyone.

Kids should be in & around adult work whenever and wherever possible, regardless of the industry. There are lessons everywhere, and for everyone.

  • Are you remembering and honoring your roots?
  • Are you writing & sharing your family’s experiences, in business & otherwise?
  • Are you teaching your children your lessons learned and connecting them to the past, so they can prepare for the future? And appreciate what was done to enable them to be where they are and are going?

Originally published at

CEO of ChinaNetCloud & — Global Entrepreneur in Shanghai & Silicon Valley