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There is a mountain of research and discussion around the differences in generational value sets, work ethic and motivational drivers. Where this intersects with skilled trade work, there is a diminishing reservoir of the talent and passion that will build the next generation of schools, hospitals, courthouses and other traditional infrastructure.

In short, more people are leaving the trades than coming in. But, far worse (and rarely discussed) is the internal poverty this will bring to the reservoir of character, creativity and true satisfaction that companies will need foster if they are to endure in the decades to come. The mass migration from physical jobs to intellectual ones—while largely a positive trend—carries some damaging side effects to individuals and corporations if not intentionally managed at the organizational level.

The tangible nature of trade work has always been a reflection of the divine image to conceive, create and cultivate something new. Every creation story told in every culture across the world echoes the idea that humans were meant to create, shape, and participate in the organization and beautification of our world. The desire to build is primal to what it means to be human. Something good happens to a person’s soul when they work with their hands in the raw elements of earth, wood and metal.

This is not to diminish contemporary knowledge work, which is necessary and important. But something has been lost (or at least retreated to the shadows), and the current culture does not esteem or reward tradecraft as much as it used to.

However, similar to physical exercise, recapturing this ethic is not complicated, but requires effort. The following are two simple exercises that can be implemented to reconnect people back to the simple satisfaction and immensely constructive practice of trade work.

1. Reframe Knowledge Work (and Unskilled Labor) as Craftwork

Spreadsheets, presentations and documentation work are often portrayed as the tedious but necessary companions of progress. People are awash with information that needs to be organized, cataloged and tracked to the “n-th” degree. Similarly, sweeping floors, wiping counters and taking out the trash (literally or metaphorically) are seen as the unfortunate byproducts of the real creative crafts of carpentry, metal work or plumbing.

The time has come to treat all work as creative craftwork. As anyone knows, the laborer who takes a creative and enthusiastic approach to sweeping will find an internal pride and joy to do it excellently. There is nothing more inspiring than watching someone hone their craft—however simple—to such a degree that it can only be described as art.

Knowledge work is no different. The outstanding project engineers are the ones that craft a request for information so keenly that the ideas presented are clear, concise and enjoyable to read. Meeting minutes can be a rote chore or an opportunity for creative prose. The difference is in how work is characterized and encouraged. Wise leaders will foster the spirit of a craftsman at every level of the organization, in every employee and for every task. Not only to do it excellently but to do it creatively. The result will be a workforce with more joy and a better appreciation for creativity, excellence, and craft.

As Rob Bell writes in "How To Be Here,"

“Seeing your work as craft rescues you. Craft centers you. Craft reconnects you...
The joy of waking up and having something to give yourself to...
    that’s what matters,
    that’s where the joy is,
    that’s where life is.”

2. Do Physical Work

While conceiving our everyday tasks as craftwork can be a rescue for the desk jokey, there is no substitute for physical work. Something good happens to a person’s soul when they work with their hands in the raw elements of earth, wood and metal. It is important, particularly in the construction industry, to not become so distant with the physical act of construction that the management of construction loses the very context that gives it meaning.

In that vein, frequent visits to the jobsite are crucial. Opportunities for management to engage some portion of the work is imperative. Leaders in the construction industry must routinely exercise that part of their beings that shapes the world around them into something more beautiful than it was before. Reserving time to build something will result in making the whole person just a little bit better.

The next generation is looking for intrinsic meaning at home, at work and at play. If today’s construction organizations are to thrive in the future—particularly as more and more young people enter the workplace—their leaders will need to be intentional about addressing these deep parts of the human condition: creativity, character, and craft.

Leaders may not be able to reverse the tectonic shift from physical work to knowledge work, but they can reverse some of the negative effects while still embracing the positive ones. The construction industry has a unique opportunity to build better people right alongside of building better buildings.

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