A Few Good Men

The Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 Rule, reigns in construction school, where 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the students.

Our program space is divided into two zones: the classroom and the workshop. One is silent and sterile; the other pounds with noise and swirls with sawdust. French doors separate the rooms. We installed the doors ourselves last trimester.

For reasons I cannot explain, a significant number of students spend the day seated comfortably in the classroom, texting each other and swapping SnapFace memes. They seem mildly annoyed to have to be at construction school, which is puzzling, because they don’t.

Meanwhile, next-door, a minority of the class is hefting 2×4’s, ripping fiber cement, trimming windows, sanding countertops, and explaining the confounding geometry of speed squares to each other, accompanied by the relentless hum and whir of air compressors, saws and finishing guns. We’re building a break room for the Building Construction Technology program, which we affectionately call BCT Cafe. It has a microwave, a fridge, and a butcher-block countertop that we sanded, scribed, leveled, and installed with our own hands and our new skills.

Want to take a guess what factor most strongly correlates with a classmate’s level of engagement, i.e. what determines who is lounging in the classroom and who is laboring in the workshop at any given minute? Hint: It’s not gender, race, or nationality.

It’s age.

Roughly speaking, the over-30 crowd shows up on time and spends the day in the workshop, collaborating, constructing, and cleaning up the mess. I suppose it’s because we, in our relative senescence, have chosen to return to school for specific reasons, and we want to make it count.

And among that elder population, can you guess who is the most diligent and capable sub-group? Hint: It’s not the middle-aged mom.

It’s the veterans.

I suppose it’s because they’ve done harder work under worse circumstances with higher stakes, but they make the most challenging tasks of construction look really easy. No idle chitchat and loafing for those guys. You need windows trimmed? Those guys are trimming windows. You need a soffit? Then it’s soffit on the double.

They’re pretty mum on the topic of military service, but whenever I find myself adjacent to a rare exchange of war stories, I am humbled. All I can say is “Thank you.”

The veterans are great at solving problems. Two boards don’t fit together? That’s nothing a hammer can’t fix. Roofing math a little confusing? That’s nothing trial and error can’t solve.

While it frustrates many of us senior citizens that the younguns don’t milk this college opportunity for everything it can offer, that they dodge the roaring air compressors and whirling sawdust of the workshop in favor of social media and gossip, I think it bothers the veterans the most.

But, as previously mentioned, ex-military guys are excellent problem-solvers, so here’s what they did:

On a recent morning when the youngsters were settling in to kill the hours until lunch, the Marines snaked a bunch of extension cords through the workshop and lined up all the air compressors right by the French doors. Then they turned on all the air compressors—creating a pounding phalanx of pneumatic percussion—and opened the doors.

Within seconds, classroom conversation disbanded, and, for lack of peace and quiet, everyone relocated to the workshop.

For a few industrious minutes, our 80/20 workforce functioned at 100 percent.

4 thoughts on “A Few Good Men

  1. From a Tcat HVAC instructor you have hit the nail on the head in most cases about class behavior. My old instructor told me one third of the class doesn’t need you, one third of the class you can help and the last third are just there.


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