It was your average evening. The kids had been fed, their homework was finished and the wife was busy relaxing. I turned on my computer to check out what new topic was being bantered about on the W&C message board. As my browser opened, the following statement jumped off the page and spun me into a whole new dimension of ticked-off:

"I think there are plenty of young people that would love to enter the construction trades. The problem is, with the illegals and other markets forcing prices and wages down, it would be stupid for a young guy nowadays to take a job busting his butt, when he could sit behind the counter at the local video store goofing off for the same-if not higher-wage. Anyone agree? Honestly, just look at what most employers' starting wages are. If you were in their position, what would you do?"

What would I do? Here is what I did. The year was 1980. The economy was in the tank and one couldn't buy a construction job. I had a friend who worked at a local college washing dishes in the cafeteria. He informed yours truly they were looking for someone to scrub baked-on ravioli from pots and pans. Do I sit at home and make nothing or get dishpan hands for $3.25 per hour-"Where do I sign up?"

The world needs diggers too

For the next three months, my nightly ritual included applying liberal amounts of Cornhuskers lotion to the chapped and cracked epidural layer of my paws. Question: What did this foray into pot and pan maintenance replace? Answer: Paying my dues learning a trade. I was 19 years old and at the beck and call of a grumpy general contractor, pulling down a solid $4.25 an hour. This was not a glorious beginning. I was responsible for carrying out such heady tasks as mixing trashcans full of acoustic texture, winding cords the correct way, washing tools and loading/unloading a 1974 AMC Travellal. If you are old enough to remember the Travellal, you know this was a job. Why was I willing to spend my days breaking my back performing such menial tasks? Because I understand the concept of paying dues.

My father had not been too proud to pay these same dues. In 1942, when he was 18, he went to work for the Reading railroad and was paid a whopping $.88 an hour. He paid his dues and worked his way up, eventually becoming a signal maintainer. So, when it was my turn to enter the workplace, I knew better than to ask the question, "Why should I bust my butt learning a trade?" His answer would have been painful.

I also never heard my father make the following statement, "I want a better life for my kids." What message does that send to your kids anyway?

My dad has lived a very good life, worked hard and provided for his wife and kids. He guided this family safely through their own lives and I'm proud of the life my father has lived. Why should that life not be good enough for his son or even his grandsons? A generation ago, sons worked side by side with their fathers and grandfathers learning from them. After years of paying their dues and learning the "secrets" of the trade from their elders, the next generation took over the reins, and thus started the cycle once again. I wonder when this wish for children to have it better than the parents started? And could this trend have something to do with the following observation plucked from the same message board:

"Whether people want to face it or not, the fact is that we DO need workers from south of the border to fill the jobs young Americans don't want to do. How many kids want to get into construction nowadays? Not as many as years ago. They all want some cushy computer job and their own cubicle so they can screw off and surf the net all day. That leaves a huge void for workers."

Yet another posts the following:

"Do you see as many young people who want to enter the trades as opposed to 10, 15 or 20 years ago? I definitely don't since the era of the IT boom. Most of the young people I see now want to sit at a computer all day, as opposed to doing physical labor. Also, the majority of the workforce I see in the drywall industry locally is primarily made up of the 35-and-older guys who've been in the trades for years. Eventually, I don't see the influx of young people keeping up with the older people hanging it up."

The constant drywaller

I can speak personally to the fact that kids do not want to work hard nowadays. The last kid I hired lasted one week. When he found out he would not be making $20 an hour, his response was the same "why-should-I" phrase. Is it the parents' fault by ingraining the "I want it to be better for my kids" mentality? Maybe.

Face it: We're not all cut out to be doctors. Some people are meant to be drywall dogs, plasterers, mechanics and gardeners. There is nothing wrong with that.

My daughter went to school with a really nice kid named Mike. He loved anything having to do with cars. He worked after school at a garage pumping gas and wrenching on half the cars in town.

One day, the bell rang at the gas pump and as he approached the driver's window, he realized the driver was one of his teachers. The teacher recognized Mike and asked what he planned to do after graduation. Mike answered he planned to continue working on cars, at which point the teacher berated him about what a shame it would be to have grease under his fingernails for the rest of his life and what a waste of talent it would be. Thankfully, Mike ignored this misguided attempt to sidetrack his plans. I'm pretty sure Mike makes about twice as much as this teacher does now. If there is any justice, he will get the chance to over charge this guy for a trans rebuild someday.

One of the major issues every company faces today is the lack of qualified labor. If kids think that what we do is something to be ashamed of and that they need something better, it stands to reason that there will be ones from other countries who will be more than willing to step up and fill this vacuum. If we look back through our country's not so distant past, there are a string of nationalities that have taken the heat for stepping up to fill a labor vacuum. It's no secret that our rail system was built on the backs of the Chinese and Irish laborers who worked under the most dangerous and in many cases inhumane conditions.

Today, Hispanic workers have become a lightning rod. I read January's column Success With Hispanics by Ricardo Gonzalez and it made me think. I am ashamed to admit that there was a time not so long ago that I automatically equated "Hispanic" with "illegal alien." There are stories in the news daily about illegal workers. However, who is the true culprit? Is it the worker who wants nothing more than to make a living? I think not. Rather, I suggest the real villain is the company or individual who chooses to ignore the law and hires illegal workers. It is these individuals who are warping the playing field, not the Hispanic worker who is here legally. The real issue is not with the worker, it is with the work.

There are laws on the books to protect workers' rights. Instead of grousing about it, if you have knowledge of a company using illegal labor or unsafe labor practices, turn them in. You will be leveling the playing field for everyone. I suggest this is the perfect time for young Americans to enter the construction trades. For those willing to spend some sweat equity, it is the chance of a lifetime.

My oldest son recently told me he would like to go into the construction field. Instead of telling him to get a "better" job, one where perhaps he won't get dirty, I am encouraging him to pursue this course. I am also recommending he take business classes, along with Vo-Tech schooling, so he will be able to work "smarter" than his dad.

In closing, I ask the following question: If all of the legal Hispanic labor disappeared tomorrow, would your company be able to find enough homegrown labor to step in and fill these shoes?

Remember: Drywall is a trade, not a job.

If you read this article, please circle number 360.