BY KATIE KUEHNER-HEBERT
At a time when contractors are doing all they can to attract more millennials and Gen Zers to the industry, utilizing an inspirational poem by Eric Borden, a longtime heavy equipment operator and “The Pasture Poet,” can help immeasurably.
Borden’s poem, “Ditch Diggers,” pays homage to the men and women who make up the construction industry and the incredible work they do. It also brings contractors to their feet in appreciation — and a tear to the eye of more than a few high school counselors.
In April, Borden, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 101 who works for Mark One Electric Company in Kansas City, a Kansas City Chapter and Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City member,, recited his poem at the opening of AGC of America’s 100th Annual Convention in Denver. Accompanying his poem was a video made by the trade group showcasing his poem against a backdrop of construction workers employed by AGC members.
The presentation received an immediate and thunderous standing ovation.
In a later interview, Borden recalls what prompted him to write the poem. He was attending a child’s birthday party and the parents were talking about the need for their kids to go to college. One said — in a “not too flattering way” — that not everyone needs to go to college, because “the world always needs ditch diggers.”
“That got me to thinking — I come from a background of what many people would call ditch diggers,” Borden says. “Half of my family are farmers, and the other half are blue collar workers.”
He also grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood that included contractors, and “everyone could fix anything.” Later Borden went into the mechanics field and joined Local 101, and saw that “everyone is built to do something.”
“Young people don’t always hear about that when they are in school, as society often looks down upon construction workers,” he says. “So I wrote the poem because I want young people to know that they can go to college if they want to, but they can choose to have a good career in construction even if they don’t.”
Last July, Borden posted his poem on Facebook and since then it has received roughly 2.4 million views, with a number of versions on YouTube collectively receiving more than 40,000 views. Grateful emails and social media messages from construction workers pour in continuously, comments such as, “I’m a third-generation iron worker, and I really appreciate this.”
“I wanted to make the video inclusive to let people know that it’s not just white guys wearing denim, but women, Latinos, blacks — people from all walks of life can work in the construction industry,” Borden says.
The Pasture Poet writes many poems and hopes to make a side career of his craft, while he continues to work in construction. Some of his earlier jobs in the industry include working as a refrigeration unit mechanic for a trucking company, a field mechanic for an excavation contractor, and a boom truck driver for an equipment rental company, delivering and placing street plates, trench boxes and shoring systems.
“Working in construction has provided a good source of income for my family, and it helps me always learn new things to be more marketable — not only for the next job, but also for the industry,” he says.
Eric gives immense credit to his wife and son, plus the individuals, business leaders and community of his hometown — Drexel, Mo. — for helping him get the first version of the poem off the ground last year. The community surrounded him with overwhelming support to make this possible. Without their initial support and belief in his vision of how the poem would positively expose the opportunities in the industry, he wouldn’t have had the opportunities to date.
One of Borden’s biggest supporters is Joe Tiernan, an account executive and shareholder at Holmes Murphy & Associates Inc., a national insurance and risk management company based in Waukee, Iowa. Tiernan serves contractor clients out of the firm’s Kansas City office, and is a Kansas City Chapter member and current chairman of the chapter’s Construction Leadership Council.
“Last August I was up late scrolling LinkedIn and I saw a local plumbing company post a video of Eric reciting his poem,” says Tiernan. “His voice alongside the way he articulated what the men and women in skilled trades do for all of us immediately hooked me. I was overwhelmed with goose bumps.”
Tiernan’s construction clients talk to him continuously about the industry’s labor shortage, and he knew they would appreciate “Ditch Diggers.”
“Eric’s poem is a beautiful way to open people’s eyes that we all rely on each other to make the world go around.”
“I’ve never before sent a blind carbon copy email, but I did with his poem, sending it to 200 clients and prospective clients,” Tiernan says. “They, in turn, kept sharing it with others — the responses were incredible. Then I realized, okay there’s something here with this guy, and I called him to see how I could help him.”
It started out as “a utility friendship,” but Tiernan quickly grew to admire Borden’s “ethics, values, principles, the way he thinks about people.” Tiernan is now honored to call Borden one of his closest friends.
Tiernan is so motivated by the The Pasture Poet that he wants to help create “a social movement,” getting people to think differently about construction workers.
“I’d like for people driving through construction zones to slow down for just a second, stop thinking of it as an inconvenience and remember these people are working to make your city more beautiful,” he says. “Say or wave thanks to them, and maybe even offer to buy them lunch or bring them coffee. But also become an advocate to get more young people to go into the trades.”
Don Greenwell, executive director of The Builders’ Association (Kansas City Chapter), says that Borden’s poem can serve as a powerful recruitment tool for members.
“Workforce development is the number one issue that our contractor members talk about,” Greenwell says. “The workers with a lot of construction experience who were on the bench during the recession years are all pretty much back to work, or have found another type of career or are retiring.”
The Kansas City area construction industry is starting to implement outreach and exposure programs to attract more young people, as well as introduce more training programs in area high schools and within the trade group’s training facilities at the adult level.
“The industry also has a branding problem, and Eric’s poem is a great way to show a positive image of construction work.” ~ Don Greenwell, executive director, The Builders’ Association
“But the industry also has a branding problem, and Eric’s poem is a great way to show a positive image of construction work,” Greenwell says. “It helps us to have a discussion with young people about what is success — having work that demonstrates integrity and that you’re proud of.”
Greenwell thinks “it was genius” for the national staff at AGC of America to have Borden recite the poem with the video as a backdrop, “particularly at a milestone convention like the Centennial.”
“The video that the national AGC produced of Eric’s poem went viral in such a short period of time because of its inspirational content,” he says.
Borden has also recited his poem at several local Kansas City events, including at a gathering of various contractors and craftspeople and also at a meeting of a group of 100 local high school counselors that The Builders’ Association hosted at its training center.
“After Eric recited his poem in front of the high school counselors, they immediately stood up to give him a standing ovation and some even had tears streaming down their faces — it was that inspirational to them,” Greenwell says.
The counselors then broke into four groups and interacted with the trainers, trying their hands at working with tools — “just as if they were training as apprentices,” he says.
“They all gave us really great feedback, and now they are telling us that young parents in particular have a different attitude about whether or not their children go into the construction industry, because of the escalating cost of college and frequent disconnect with employment opportunities,” Greenwell says.
Construction workers can now pursue what educators and career/academic advisors call “stackable credentialing” — obtaining a series of certifications to propel their careers, similar to what coders at technology companies are now doing, he says.
“If they choose to, young people can then progress into field management, estimating or other kinds of construction management jobs — and if they are entrepreneurial in nature, maybe they can even become a contractor in the future,” Greenwell says.
He is very grateful for
Borden’s passion to help others; Borden invested about $10,000 of his own money
to produce the initial local video.
“Because of his tenacity and his own personal
commitment, things have started to happen within the industry to create a
better brand to attract more workers,” Greenwell says. “Eric has set us all
ablaze about this, and it’s been a very good