How to Build a Career in the Dirt World

One of the greatest things about a career in construction is the variety of forms it can take. Are you a laborer, equipment operator, architect, fleet manager, electrician, or inspector? These and many other roles are available.

And what kind of construction are you most interested in doing: Institutional and commercial? New home building or renovation? Heavy industrial? Engineering?

A career in the construction trades offers many options, and yet a few basic rules apply:

  • An apprenticeship is a great way to start out.
  • Different construction roles share the same success factors: maintaining a positive attitude, being a lifelong learner, and developing your communication and leadership skills.
  • Focus on quality, and on delivering your work on time and on or under budget.
  • Help your team members succeed and always set high safety standards on the work site.

The better you know yourself, your skills, and your strengths and weaknesses, the faster you can advance in your dirt world career.

Many career paths, yet finite success factors.

If you’re young or just starting out, and you want to build a long career in construction, your mindset and the energy you bring to your work are two critical success factors.

As Willink recalled from his early construction laborer days: “Number one, you’re going to work hard. Number two, you’re going to pay attention. Number three, you’re going to look to take responsibility whenever you can. Number four, you're going to take ownership. If something goes wrong, you're going to own that problem. You're going to get it fixed.”

If you’re willing to work hard, pay attention, ask good questions, and take ownership of problems that arise, “There is unlimited opportunity in the construction industry — unlimited potential for growth,” Willink said. “It's a great business. It's a great life.”

Construction work can be very gratifying, in part because you “can quantifiably see what you did. And that's very rewarding. And then as you grow up in that industry, there's just so much opportunity.” Willink’s advice for advancement? “I would work hard, I would take ownership, I would take as much responsibility. I would pull things off my boss's plate as often as I could.”

Working hard is a choice.

At any construction site, you can see different models for how you want to be as a worker. For example, the guys and gals who arrive early and stay late are easy to spot. As are those who are quick to help out when they see a need — whether with their direct supervisor or elsewhere on their team or the job site as a whole.

You’ll also see, as Willink noted, young labors who are going to work hard, “but then they're going to get drunk that weekend. They're not looking for any additional responsibility. They're not looking to figure out how to do anything on their own.” Based on those work choices, “They're going to be a laborer for a long time.”

But those who build great careers in the dirt world take the attitude that they’re going to work hard and they’re going to learn. They seek out opportunities to take on additional responsibilities and to make their bosses’ lives easier.

To Willink, “Those are the guys that have unlimited potential.”


The dirt world offers varied and interesting career paths for many types of people. In addition to the variety of ongoing learning opportunities, construction is a world in which there are fewer barriers than some other career fields. There aren’t as many boxes you have to check to advance. Your progress is based on how hard — and how smart — you’re able to work.

“Yes, it's how hard you're willing to work,” said Willink. “But if you apply how hard you're willing to work, which has got to be damn hard, with a little bit of proactive smarts, that's the difference maker.”

Your mindset and work habits go a long way in determining how your dirt world career unfolds. As Willink observed, “If you want to work construction, do labor, get drunk on the weekends, and show up five minutes late, 10 minutes late, you're going to be a laborer for a long time. If you want to work hard, you want to be smart about it, the ceiling is unlimited.”