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When Work Was Play

Posted by Ron Jones

May 21, 2014 2:50:19 PM

An oft-repeated question in the building industry and the various sectors that comprise it is: “Why are we having such a hard time attracting new people to the business?” There seems to be no shortage of theories as to why, but what I hear most often are suggestions like “Young people today don’t know the meaning of work” or “Nowadays people don’t want a job, they expect a position.” These kinds of worn-out rationales do virtually nothing to address the issue in any meaningful ways, and they certainly don’t hint at any sort of solution. More importantly, they shine the light in the wrong direction, in my opinion. Casting stereotypical aspersions on generations of people is an exercise in distraction that only serves to keep us from looking at the real source of the problem: ourselves.

One of my most beloved writers is the American poet Wendell Berry, and perhaps my favorite of all his works is Horses, a nostalgic look at a more romantic and simpler time when draft horses powered agriculture, transportation and industry—before we all got lost in what he calls “the unreturning way, the breathless distance of iron.”

Berry recalls: “The reins of a team were put in my hands when I thought the work was play,” and he also reminds us that even as late as then, “a teamster was thought an accomplished man, his art an essential discipline.”

In much the same way, we have allowed our attention to detail, our devotion to craftsmanship and our enviable commitment to quality to be eroded from the once proud profession of building. We have also stood by apathetically as the respect, trust and skill that were once our trademarks as practitioners have evaporated, as well.

The principal in our profession’s savings account—so painstakingly earned and carefully managed by generations of builders before us—has too easily been bartered for quick profits, for taking shortcuts, for short term gains. It seems there is not much balance left to generate enough interest to assure a sound, sustainable industry for builders yet to come. Saddest of all, we have failed to invest adequately in those who would one day take our place.

I’ve come to believe that we sell ourselves short; that we have mostly stood by and watched while youngsters still playing out fantasies of becoming firemen, pilots, policemen, astronauts and cowboys seldom experience the fun and adventure of building something. We haven’t resisted energetically enough when young people who are trying to chart a path to their future are lured by sexy technologies and the bling of Silicon Valley.

We have ceased to transfer the feel of our tools to hands that would still think the work was play, the hands of those whose imaginations would still be open to the notion that creating shelter can be at least as rewarding, and more of an essential discipline, than generating the most tweets.

I’m not suggesting it will be easy. We have to be willing to abandon some of our old ways, throw out our gender bias and other prejudices. We have to truly be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Most importantly of all, we need to be examples of what people aspire to be. When we do, attracting new people to building won’t be hard at all.

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