Last fall I stayed in Alabama for one month to work in home construction. During that month, I gained more construction experience than my previous 41 years of life, which consisted mostly of assembling Ikea furniture and nailing things to the wall. This blue-collar job was given to me at a stage of my life where I desire to own a home, so I took the work seriously and contemplated on the experience after it was over. Here are fourteen things I learned…
1. Nothing fits the first time around
You can sum up construction as “forcing things to fit that don’t want to fit together.” You can take your time, be methodical, and measure diligently with your tape, but when it comes time to lay down a counter or build stairs for a deck, the pieces won’t fit. Then you have to figure out how to make the thing fit, either by cutting some more, using a wood shim, or pounding it into place with your fists of rage.
As a perfectionist, I dislike how construction work is more an art than a science. In fact, my writing is more of a science because I am able to methodically examine the purpose of every word in every article or book before releasing it to an audience knowing that it is perfect based on my ability, but in construction the standard is often “that’s good enough” before moving on to the next task that will also be impossible to get perfect.
2. It’s okay to mess up
Mistakes happen all the time. Whenever you hear an outburst of profanity then one of your coworkers just made an error, and you hear profanity all day long. Construction is not a baking recipe where if you add the wrong amount of ingredients, your bread won’t rise properly. In fact, a good chunk of the workday is correcting your mistakes or correcting the mistakes of the contractor who tried to do the work before you.
The biggest hurdle I had to doing my own construction work was the fear that I would mess up. Now I see that as a big laugh. Even the experts mess up, so the perfectionist in me officially died in Alabama.
3. There is no one right way to complete a job
There is no field manual to complete a job. You attack a task based on your experience and the tools you have on hand. The more experience and the better tools you have, the more likely you will complete the job quickly with the fewest mistakes. When you’re learning on the job like I was, you observe a variety of techniques and then pick the most efficient ones to incorporate into your skillset.
Funnily enough, the one time there was a field manual on a job (to build an outdoor gazebo from a kit), the foreman didn’t like the instructions and modified it based on his experience, which ended up saving us time. Even a detailed instruction manual is just one way of getting things done.
4. Blue-collar men are not college-educated
I don’t remember meeting any college-educated men on the sites I worked at. When I got hired, the second-in-command looked at the boss and exclaimed, “We’re hiring former scientists now.” What the workers lacked in book knowledge they made up for in practical experience.
I noticed that blue-collar men process information and content differently than my college-educated peers. The attention spans of the former are not trained to read dense books or listen to long podcasts packed with information; they much prefer shorter snippets and sound bites to get to the essential truth of the matter, which I imagine is why politicians and corporations create memorable slogans. Blue-collar workers also don’t waste time participating in political activism or getting to the bottom of intricate cultural issues. They don’t have a vague mission to “spread the truth” or “improve society.” They care more about getting through the day and then getting paid on Friday. They hate communism, love guns, smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, engage in more direct communication without a labored sensitivity for other people’s feelings, are more masculine, are less politically correct, like making fun of gays, and curse in every other uttered sentence, if not every sentence.
5. Working outside is harder than working inside
When you’re working outside, you’re more likely to be digging holes, carrying very heavy things, serving as a blood meal for bugs, or on the verge of passing out from baking in the sun. By comparison, the hardest part of indoor work is bending down repeatedly. Digging holes in the summer heat really is the worst.
6. Workers break every safety rule in the book
Before using a new tool, I like to educate myself with safety videos on YouTube so that I don’t injure myself. The men I worked with never followed these rules, and actually invented new ways of using tools that were rather dangerous. One example is the “standing cut,” whereby a man takes a piece of wood, braces it against his bent right leg, then uses a circular saw to cut it. When it came to eye protection, the most common form was squint goggles, which as you may surmise is the act of squinting while sawdust is flying at your face. I was the only person on the job who ever used ear protection, and I figure the other guys thought I was a sissy for doing so.
The worst injury I saw on site was a man who dropped a heavy piece of metal on his foot. He wailed in pain for some time, almost to the point of tears. When I suggested he get emergency medical treatment, the foreman looked at me and said, “Roosh, I know you’re trying to be helpful, but he’ll be fine.” Sure enough, he resumed work a few minutes later.
7. Construction is a matter of time as much as skill
Most construction jobs can be done by any man possessing an IQ of 95, at a level comparable to the pros. As long as you study a handful of YouTube tutorials and be patient, you can complete a job that looks great, but the reason most people don’t do it themselves is because of time. Your lack of experience and skill means it will take you weeks to paint your house while the pros can do it in a couple of days. If you tell me to build an outdoor deck right now, I’m confident I could do it, but it would take me forever.
Construction isn’t rocket science. If you can assemble Ikea furniture then you can theoretically build stairs. In the future, I’ll probably do smaller home jobs on my own and hire out the bigger ones.
8. Building is more fun than finishing
Building is when you buy the raw materials from Home Depot, devise a plan, cut all the required pieces, and then put it together, such as a deck or even a house. There is a lot of room for error and you don’t have to pay much attention to detail. Finishing is when you’re painting, adding trim, caulking, touching-up, or otherwise doing a task that will make the outer layer finished and visible to the world. The latter is far more monotonous and boring because you can be doing the exact same task for hours on end, whereas building is composed of more tasks and variety. On the plus side, finishing is generally easier for an inexperienced worker because of its simplicity.
9. Your body is either built for manual labor or it’s not
My physical energy decreased every week while on the job with no hope of recovery. The 100+ equivalent squats I was doing each day caused my legs to feel numb at night. I was so tired that I didn’t even have the energy to read. I figured that for every four weeks I worked, I would need at least two weeks off.
Compare that to men who have been in this line of work for decades. There was one man in his fifties who had never seen a gym in his life. He drank heavily, smoked, and ate fast food every meal, yet he could run laps around me. A weekend of hard partying actually had the effect of increasing his energy. Many men who did not look physically impressive were able to maintain consistent output while I faltered because of my fragile constitution.
If I had to pay the bills, I have no doubt I could work construction indefinitely, but it would come at a cost of all other areas of my life, including my intellectual work. I wonder if the job we’re currently doing is the job we’re meant to do, and the fact that so many of us have comfortable desk jobs may be an indication of how weak men of our generation have become.
10. You don’t need the right tool (but it sure does help)
Home construction is a mobile job. You drive to a person’s home with the right materials and tools and then get to work, but you can only fit so many tools inside a truck. This means that you have to visualize the job beforehand and decide which tools you need, but you will always forget something, and when you do, it doesn’t make much sense to leave the job and spend an hour or two retrieving the tool you need. Improvisation is common.
I have witnessed water bottles being used as paint buckets and power drills used as hammers. One task I was assigned to called for using a clothing iron to melt a strip of adhesive attached to Formica. We did not have an iron, but we did have a hairdryer for some reason, so I used that instead. You will never have all the tools you need.
11. There is too much drone work
The more skilled you are, the less drone work you do, because it wouldn’t make sense for the foreman to mop the floors when the guy making the least amount (me) could do it, but even the most skilled worker did lowly things like hauling trash to a dumpster or digging holes. That said, if toilets had to be cleaned, like was the case one afternoon, the job went to me, and so I cleaned the toilets. Even the owner of the company got his hands dirty, usually when it came to meeting an urgent deadline. Your ability to get the job done mattered more than your perceived status of being above this type of work or that.
12. Your mind begins to obsess about lunch, quitting time, and the weekend
For the first week on the job, I was genuinely interested in all the work I was doing, but by the third week, all I could think about was lunch, and when lunch was over, all I could think about was going home. All my fantasies started to revolve around the times I knew I wouldn’t have to work, because the work itself wasn’t fun. Every cool thing I learned on the job was surrounded by hours of drone work. For my coworkers, the weekends were time to let loose and live it up to unwind the tension from working manual labor all week. They would sometimes scandalize me with stories come Monday.
13. The favorite music of your co-workers can drive you crazy
A few of my coworkers needed to listen to music while working, either rock, country, or hip hop. Rock was tolerable, especially if it was the oldies station. Country music was intolerable, because all of the songs were about a guy who couldn’t imagine living without this one amazing woman in his life. Maybe old country music displayed genuine masculinity, but modern country is idolatrous slop.
Hip-hop music was the worst. I wanted to take the power drills laying around and apply them to my brain to stop the pain from the incredibly stupid and disgusting lyrics. I could forge through country music, but during the hours of hip hop, I relied on prayer to distract me from the assault on my ears. I preferred working in silence, especially if we were outside, so that I could hear the birds. They were my preferred music.
14. Construction is not worth doing financially unless you develop a specialty or trade
I imagine that entry-level construction is the hardest way to make money. Your pay hardly increases with years on the job (partially thanks to the flood of unskilled immigrant labor), there are no benefits like health care, and if your body wears out, you will be in dire straights. Unless you are a college student looking for a short-term job, I can’t advise it.
To make a blue-collar job worth your while, you should receive training and focus on a specialty. Better to become a carpenter, plumber, electrician, car mechanic, or some other trade where a hungry Central American worker who just arrived in the country can’t immediately compete against you. These jobs still require a heavy bodily investment but less than a grunt worker. You use more of your mind and get paid way more.
Another option is to start as a grunt worker, gain experience over a few years, and then start your own contracting company. From observing my boss, there is a lot of stress involved in owning a firm since you are responsible for both employees and demanding clients, but you can achieve a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. I did notice that heavy smoking and drinking are common among men who work construction.
I can admit that I had a romanticized view of manual labor. It has been easy for me to advise other men to pursue a trade while I sit at a desk all day, but now that I see the intense bodily involvement, I can’t advise it for men who don’t have a sturdy physical constitution. If you’re a dainty cosmopolitanite like me, you will wear your body out before retirement and have to pursue another line of work.
Even though I’m not cut out for manual labor, it was more fulfilling to me as a man. My body was used more in line with its intention from creation and I slept better than I ever have. I enjoyed the comradery with salt-of-the-earth men where I did not have to speak with a filter in case I offended a female coworker who would then rat me out to Human Resources. If I could develop a specialty where the physical labor component was eased somewhat, I believe I could perform this type of work to earn my daily bread, but it looks like God has given me a different gift.
Construction may not be for every man, but if you have the opportunity to try it for a short while, I recommend it. You will work as men of old did, perhaps like those of your ancestry, and experience a different side of your nature that is concealed from you while working the comfortable jobs of modern times.
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