If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How Ken started digging ditches (and why he stuck with it)
- What is the skills gap?
- The costs and time of trade school vs a traditional 4-year college
- How blue collar work can you put ahead financially in life
- The “step-back” fulfillment of blue collar work
- The surprising intellectual challenges of blue collar jobs
- Can you change into this career as someone in the middle of a white collar career?
- The measured ways in which you build a business in these fields
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Case for Blue Collar Work With Mike Rowe
- Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College
- So You Want My Job series
- AoM series on reviving blue collar work
- Is College for Everyone?
- How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
- The Myth of Following Your Passion
- Woodpreneur Life
Connect With Ken
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to living their best life and building substantial wealth, many young men’s first thoughts turn to developing a new app or starting a popular YouTube channel. They don’t think about digging ditches. That’s how my guest today became a millionaire. He thinks more folks should consider seeking not only financial success, but true comfort, peace and freedom by rejecting today’s standardized white-collar career path and looking into alternative routes to the skilled trades. His name is Ken Rusk. He’s a construction business entrepreneur, who’s also been a life coach and mentor to hundreds of his employees, and he’s the author of “Blue-Collar Cash: Love Your Work, Secure Your Future and Find Happiness for Life.” Ken and I begin our conversation with how a guy you got a job digging ditches in high school and skipped college went on to create a multi-million dollar construction business.
We then talk about how there aren’t enough people pursuing blue-collar work and how this skills gap regarding the trades is driving up demand, and in turn, the potential income to be made in this field. Ken talks about the cost-benefit analysis of going to college versus learning a skilled trade and the advantages to the latter. He then explains the often under-appreciated reward of blue-collar work, which he calls “the step-back moment.” From there, Ken shares some stories of folks who found fulfillment pursuing blue-collar work, even made the switch later in life. Along the way, Ken shares the life advice he gives employees and job-seekers about how to manage their money, set goals and pursue their own version of happiness and success. After the show’s over, check out our show notes aom.is/bluecollarcash.
Alright, Ken Rusk, welcome to the show.
Ken Rusk: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of the book “Blue-Collar Cash: Love Your Work, Secure Your Future and Find Happiness for Life.” And you yourself are also a blue-collar construction entrepreneur. In fact, you’ve been called the million-dollar ditch-digger. Well, tell us… Let’s talk about your story, how you got to where you are. How did you become the million-dollar ditch-digger?
Ken Rusk: Well, you know, it’s kind of interesting because when I was 15 in high school, in order to… After school, we would go to the local carry-out and hang out there for a little while like a lot of kids did. And in order to get there, I had to cross through a fence that connected my high school with a small industrial park. And I used to walk by this building every day, and this building had a lot of energy coming in and out of it all the time. And one day I decided, I knew some people that worked there, and I walked in and said, “What do you guys do?” And I got hired in, and this was a company that actually dug ditches around houses to correct wet basements and crawl spaces. And so that’s what I did. I dug ditches in the summertime, and in the wintertime I worked inside in the office.
Brett McKay: And from there, so you were doing this in high school, when you graduated high school, did you go to college or did you think, “I’m just gonna stick doing what I’m doing right now, digging ditches.”
Ken Rusk: You know, it’s funny because when I was in 10th grade, I remember the teacher saying, “Raise your hand if you’re going to college,” and I remember only about a third or a half of the guys did that in the school, in the classroom. And I thought, “Well, that seems pretty balanced,” because some kids are going on to a trade or a skill or working in a family business or what have you. I was one of those people who, I had some brothers who went to college, and I thought, “Well, that’s just what I’m supposed to do.” So I tried doing it for just a couple of months and it just wasn’t… As I was approaching going to school, I knew it wasn’t for me, and as I went into the classroom, I thought, “This just isn’t for me. I like making money. I like working with my hands. I like being outside.” And so, yeah, I stuck with ditch-digging. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, you had a conversation with your dad where you had this opportunity where your boss, I think he wanted you to hit the road to help build some franchises for the business. And you were saying, “I can do this, or I can stay in school.” And your dad was like, “It sounds like you know what you wanna do, [chuckle] so go do what you wanna do.”
Ken Rusk: Well, if you think about it, I had some skills from working in the office, and I was just dangerous enough to send to a new place to help them open. And here I am a young kid, and I’m going out and I’m building out office buildings where we were gonna put these franchises and hiring people and pulling permits and doing all those kinds of things, and I just thought to myself, “What a better education than to go learn how to open a company or something on someone else’s dime, if you will.” So yeah, I took all the skills that I learned from doing the actual work, the jack hammers and the dump trucks and the shovels, and I kind of put it to good use.
Brett McKay: So you were doing this, you’re working for someone else, you’re traveling the country, helping to open these franchise, these offices. At what point did you springboard on your own?
Ken Rusk: Well, since I was younger, I always kind of wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and I think that was the important thing for me. At some point, if you’re living out of a suitcase for three or four years, that gets pretty old pretty quickly. And so I remember I came home and talked to my wife and we had an opportunity to move out to Toledo, Ohio, which is a couple of hours away from where we had grew up. And yeah, we took it. We jumped on it. We got a small loan and we came out here and we opened the company up in 1986 and we’ve been doing it ever since.
Brett McKay: And is your company, you’re still digging ditches, is it a contracting company? What do you guys do?
Ken Rusk: Yeah, we started with six employees, and now there’s nearly 200 of us. And [chuckle] that’s what we do. We waterproof foundations and basements, and we jack hammer up floors and we dig a lot of ditches. And that opportunity has helped to springboard some other construction things that I’m involved in and some investments and things, and so it’s been a pretty good ride so far.
Brett McKay: So the book’s about, you’re making the case for blue-collar work, and you start off the book talking about how in America, we’re having this crisis with the workforce, particularly there’s a skills gap. What is the skills gap? And kind of walk us through what… What effect is it having on the economy?
Ken Rusk: Well, back in the ’70s and ’80s when I was in high school, there was shop class, and you could learn welding and plumbing and carpentry and electrical, and you can learn car mechanics and home economics and all those kinds of things. At some point, somebody decided, “Well, let’s get rid of all the lathes and all the equipment and all the tools, and let’s put computers in those rooms. “Now obviously, we had to learn how to use computers. That’s a given, but I never really thought it was a binary choice, one or the other. Why couldn’t we have both? Right? So that started a process where millions of kids just didn’t discover by accident how cool it is to build something or to create something or to weld something or to bake something or to fix something. And if you put that scenario on top of the fact that now these kids are growing up, unfortunately, with just cellphones and games in their hand and iPads and that kind of thing, we don’t have a lot of discovery of blue-collar work where you’re working with your hands.
And the perfect storm of those two confluences along with we’re funneling everybody into college, we’re really creating this giant gap of people willing to work with their hands, and it’s creating a huge supply-and-demand issue. And as you know, anywhere supply is low and demand is high, that’s right where the money goes.
Brett McKay: Do we have any idea like the numbers of how many jobs are going unfulfilled because people can’t find qualified candidates?
Ken Rusk: Well, I’ll just put it to you this way. For every five electricians whose average age right now is in the mid-50s, for every five electricians who are retiring, there’s only one coming online. So you can figure out real quick what’s gonna happen there if that continues. There are millions of jobs that could be filled that are going unfilled, and now people are waiting weeks and months just to get a plumber out to their house or to get a finish carpenter out or a stone mason like in my case.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s an interesting point. So another factor contributing to the crisis is that you have a lot of people who are in the trades right now, they’re about to retire, [chuckle] and there’s no one there to replace them. So there’s gonna be even more of a skills gap.
Ken Rusk: Yeah, a quick, quick example. I had a stone kitchen built on my back deck a few years ago, and here’s a guy who, he’s a great business man. He rolls up in my driveway in his brand new pickup truck. He jumps out with his coffee in his hand in his t-shirt and his jeans and his boots. And his guys follow him in the dump truck, and they get out and they open the doors and they crank up the Led Zeppelin and they spend the day building these beautiful outdoor kitchens. That’s what they do. It’s artwork. And do you know that guy wants to retire now, and he has nobody to leave his company to? And here’s a guy who is making well over six figures, doing what he loves to do. Just imagine if you could find a young person who could shadow him for a few years and then take that over. He would have an instant success.
Brett McKay: Alright, so as you said there, there’s this gap here, but there’s a high demand, but little supply. So that means there’s an opportunity for people if they want it.
Ken Rusk: Well, I’ve always said you should be a contrarian thinker. If everybody’s going in this direction, perhaps you should go in the opposite direction because there’s gonna be a supply problem there. And as most contrarian thinkers do, they’re looking for lucrative opportunities to appear on that side, which in the blue-collar world, they definitely do.
Brett McKay: Do you have any idea? So you mentioned the stonemason guy. He’s high in demand, that has no one to sell his business to, so he can retire. Any other industries or trades where you’ve seen there’s a high demand for, because there’s just simply not enough workers or skilled workers for it.
Ken Rusk: Absolutely. Welding is one. Finish carpentry is one. You can talk about energy, whether it’s alternative energy or it’s new or traditional forms of energy. There’s all kinds of… You’re talking about transportation. You’re talking about medical. There’s a lot of places that are looking for a lot of people and can’t find them right now.
Brett McKay: And this goes to my next question or this next point you make in the book is that in America we’ve been for, I’d say for the past 50 years, been told, “If you want a stable career that’s lucrative, that will provide you a good living, you have to go to college.” But you’re making this point, “Okay, actually in the trades, there’s a high demand, but low supply. So you can actually make decent money.” And so I think a lot of people don’t go into the trades or they sort of snub their nose at blue-collar work, think, “Well, you really don’t make that much money.” Give us ideas, the numbers that people could make in different trades or blue-collar work that they could make right after finishing trade school.
Ken Rusk: Well, yeah, if you’re a good finish carpenter, you can make $50 an hour. In welding, you can make $48 an hour. If you’re a plumber, you can make in the 40s as well. And God forbid that you do that for yourself, and then perhaps if you’re any good at what you do, which again, in this day and age, as long as you show up, shake someone’s hand, look them straight in the eye, be on time and do reasonably good work, you’re gonna be popular, right? So, God forbid, your business grows, and now you have other people that you have to hire on to help with you. And now they’re working with and for you, and you’re charging those rates. You could see how a contractor can easily make six figures. There are some areas in the country where they’re hiring plumbers right out of their tech school at $90,000 a year in places like Atlanta. So if this continues, you’re gonna have blue-collar workers making as much or more than family doctors, because that’s what we’re seeing now.
Brett McKay: That’s amazing. Okay, so you’re this contrarian guy. You’re telling people to go zig instead of zagging, and you make these points… Going back to college, we’ve been told this idea, “You gotta go to college.” That’s what I was told. I went to college. But you make this point that, “Yes, if you get a college degree, you can earn good money. But getting that college degree, the amount of debt you have to take on to get that piece of paper can set you back. And you don’t really have that issue as much with a skilled laborer or a blue-collar job.”
Ken Rusk: Well first off, just so you know, I’ve never seen a finish carpenter not have any work to do in a good economy or a bad economy. They’re just that much in demand because like I said, there’s so little people getting into that field. But if you look at it this way, let’s assume that you pay typical room and board $40,000-50,000 a year to go to school, and you do that for four years. That’s about $160,000, okay, up to 200,000 in some cases. Now, let’s say that you’re someone who says, “I’m gonna forgo that and I’m gonna get a job working with my hands and I’m gonna get one of these jobs that pays me $25, $30, $40 an hour.” Now, I’m making 50,000 a year while I’m learning this skill. That’s 200,000 over four years. Now you have a net asset change of negative 200,000 to positive 200,000 or a $400,000 swing. People really need to consider that when they think about putting assets together and starting their life down the road to what they wanna build for themselves.
Brett McKay: Okay, that’s something to think about, so that you do this really great sort of cost-benefit analysis between college and going to a skilled trade where you take into account how much debt you’re gonna have to get, and then also are you even going to be able to get a job in your degree after you graduate from college that will pay you enough where you can not only pay off your college debt, but put a little aside for a home and a car and those nice things that we all work for?
Ken Rusk: Well, if you look at the current situation the way it is right now, let’s take the opposite effect. If there is a huge demand for blue-collar workers and low supply, then that might be because everyone is being funneled through college. So it only stands to reason that on the opposite side of that scale, there’s an oversupply of college graduates with lessening demand. So now these college kids are coming out of school, and they’re hoping to find these jobs that pay them 70,000, 80,000, 90,000 a year. And yet the average last year was just under 50,000 with a four-year degree, and now you’re saddled with all that debt. You might be in your mid-30s before you start building wealth if you have to pay all that off.
Brett McKay: Right, but then you can be a young man, 22, right out of trade school and save enough for a downpayment on a house.
Ken Rusk: Yeah, a lot of times when some of the people that I coach, one of the things that I’ll tell them is, “Okay, you just were offered a job at let’s say 45,000. I want you to say thank you for paying me 42,000.” And they say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” And my point is, let’s take the first 3000 that you’re offered and let’s just put that right out right away into a 401k or some type of an investment account because in 15 minutes you can build yourself into millionaire status by the time you retire.” It goes like this. If I put $60 a week, which is 3000 a year, if I put that into a 401k and I put it in a growth mode type of basket, if you will, I can save that money for 10 years and then stop saving the money on the 11th year, and by the time I retire, I’m gonna have over a million dollars in my retirement account. So imagine being 21 years of age and saying, “Wow, my retirement is handled now,” and then starting to do the other things you want like you said, save for a house, save for a car, whatever that might be. My theory is, you don’t miss the money that you never had, so you can’t spend what you never had. So if you live your life on 42,000 instead of the 45,000 that first three goes away and your retirement is covered.
Brett McKay: So not only is college is expensive, you gotta take out an enormous amount of student loans, but also you gotta take out four years of your life. Let’s compare that to trade school. How much on average would someone pay to go to trade school, and how long does it take to get certified in becoming a plumber or electrician or whatever?
Ken Rusk: Trade schools are typically a year to three years maximum, with most of them, 18 months to two years. And they cost about $10,000 to $12,000, $13,000 a year, depending on where you’re at.
Brett McKay: Gotcha.
Ken Rusk: So you can see the cost benefit right there right out of the bat. And again, you can work right away and start earning money, which is really kind of cool.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the… You talk about some of the social pressures that keep people away from blue-collar work, and one thing that people are told, “Well, don’t go into the trades ’cause it’s just not as meaningful. Office work is where… White collar work, becoming an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer, there’s more meaning to that.” What’s your response when people say, “Yeah, there’s no meaning in ditch-digging.”
Ken Rusk: Well, first off, there’s two things. When you talk about ditch-digging, you’re talking about drying up a wet, damp, smelly basement. Okay. That causes mold and mildew and all types of airborne allergens to float throughout the house, so I can show you letter upon letter upon letter where our customers over the years have written us and said, “My son suffered from asthma, he had to take all these pills, he had to be on an inhaler at night, and now he no longer has to do that.” “My grandmother had all kinds of arthritis. Now that the dampness is gone, she can move around the house and doesn’t have any breathing problems.”
So there is a silver lining in every type of work that you do. What I like to call it is that step-back moment. If you’re someone who is, let’s say, building that outdoor kitchen, for example, you’re putting the stones up, you’re doing your thing, you’re making this thing beautiful, you’re creating this work of art. And you get to step back at the end of the day and lean on your shovel and maybe sip on your pop or whatever and say, “I did that. I built that. That will stand the test of time. It’s a beautiful thing to see. And again, it’s my creation.” So there is a heck of a lot of meaning inside of blue-collar work because you get to see the beginning to the end, where if you’re in an office job, and I’m not saying they’re not important or rewarding, but a lot of times you never get to see the beginning all the way to the end of what you’re involved in.
Brett McKay: And it sounds like with blue-collar work, every job is gonna be different. You have to be creative and be flexible ’cause every situation, if you were to say you’re being a carpenter or you gotta work with what you got and you get to work with a budget and then that gives you chances to be creative and do fun stuff and use your brain in a way that’s really satisfying.
Ken Rusk: Well, in the book, I talk a lot about comfort, peace and freedom, and those are three words that I think everyone should aspire to when it comes to what they want their life to look like. And that’s really a lot of what the book is focused on, is, “How can you think better? How can you plan your life in a really concrete, mechanical, absolute, guaranteed way, not just some theory or some maybe or some day, but a actual today plan?” Because the more you’re able to plan your life, the more you’re able to say to yourself, “Maybe it doesn’t matter so much how fancy what I do for a living is. What’s more important is what I do with what I do for a living? How do I create my own base? How do I create my own future, my own wealth, going forward?” And I think that’s a really important thing that people need to think about.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s the big thing throughout your book, is that you want people to actually figure out what they want and enjoy in life and what they want… ‘Cause you spend most of your life working. So if you’re gonna do that, you might as well spend most of your time doing something you actually enjoy and not doing something that you think you should be doing because your parents or friends or what society kinda pressures you, saying that you should do that.
Ken Rusk: It’s really easy for everyone to look at the television or watch a music video and think, “Wow, my life would be perfect if I had a mega yacht and six cars and a mansion and all those other kinds of things.” But I gotta tell you, I do know some successful people who are miserable, okay? Because they don’t have control over their lives. And that’s why I think it’s very important, I talk about it in the book specifically, “To get what you think would make your best life down in front of you on a piece of paper, draw it out, be very crystal clear, work on it for a couple of weeks just like you’d work on a puzzle at your kitchen table and really put that thing together. And then keep it in front of you because only 1% of the people that when we talk about goals are willing to write it down and keep it in front of them.” The interesting thing is that same 1% earns eight times more money to nine times more money than the people that don’t have goals. So it’s such an easy thing to do. I’m shocked that they don’t teach this in high school. And in just a few short days, you could be well on your way to the path that you think would go, “Wow, that would be one of my best-lived lives.”
Brett McKay: So you obviously are a great example of how a blue-collar job can lead to meaningful, well-paying work. And what’s interesting too, a lot of people think they go in a blue-collar work that they’re just gonna be working with their hands, and there’s no… You don’t have to use any higher-level thinking, but okay, as we said, skilled labor requires high-level thinking. It requires you be creative and think outside of the box. Then also in the process, you’ve got to learn about developing a business on the fly, instead of having to go to get your MBA, you learned how to do this stuff on your own because you had to learn it to grow and keep your business going.
Ken Rusk: Well, you know, I’ve always said, if you do great work, and like I said, you’re on time and you have a great reputation, the money will take care of itself. But what’s great about living in these days, these economic times, the way we have them and with the technology, you can run a whole business from your cell phone and your pick-up truck. I mean, [chuckle] it’s insane how easy it is. You can do payroll, you can do accounts receivable, accounts payable, you can order your inventory, you can do all of these things sitting behind your steering wheel, and that was a barrier to entry for a lot of people in recent days because I gotta have an account and I gotta have a payroll clerk and I have to have all these people to do all this stuff. Well, that stuff is kind of gone now, so it has never been easier to open your own company. I encourage anyone who has a passion for doing something with their hands to go out there and try it, shadow somebody, learn from somebody, get that 4000-hour thing down where you master it like they talk about in the book, The Outliers, and then go out and try your own thing. I mean, it’s never been a better time to do so.
Brett McKay: Well, in the book, you highlight people you’ve worked with throughout your career who have started blue-collar careers, a lot of great stories. Is there one in particular you can share with us that you thought was really impactful?
Ken Rusk: Yeah, I have a German, his name is Mark, and he went through some really traumatic times with… His parents passed away in an horrific crime early on when he was only 17, and he kind of drifted around, wondering what to do. And he went to work for a box company where they would pack things up and ship them out. And he knew he had to go to school, but he really didn’t know how to do that. And he decided he wanted to be a lawyer because he had dealt with the lawyers from his parents wills and whatnot, and so he just went to a law school in town and said, “I wanna sign up.” And they said, “Well, okay. Where did you do your undergrad?” And he goes, “Undergrad?” He goes, “I went to high school out in Oak Harbor.” And he says, “Well, no, where did you go to college?” He goes, “Well, this is college. I’m here to sign up for law school.” So [chuckle] he didn’t even realize that he needed to have a degree before he went to law school.
Since then, he went back to the box company, and he just kept looking around and figuring out ways to do things better, quicker, faster, and what have you. And he kept rising up within the company. Well, at some point, he was controlling, with his own company, more than 300 trucks a day, ships, airplanes, trains, shipping things all over the world. He had a very successful career, and it was all because he decided to figure out how to build a better box.
Brett McKay: And then he sold the business and kind of enjoyed retirement for a bit, and then he got back into the game again.
Ken Rusk: Well, first off, thank you for reading the book ’cause that’s exactly right. He’s the epitome of the American dream because not only did he sell the business, he went out and rode his Harley for a while and then he drove his boat around and he went fishing and snow skiing and did all of those things, and then he said, “You know what? I’m still in the game.” So he went out and started another company, and that company is as big or bigger than his original one. So he’s quite the guy. But there again, this is the point that I wanna make to everybody. The difference between an entrepreneur and anyone who might be listening out there right now is just your ability to see what you want your future to look like. It’s real simple. It’s not complicated. And once you get that vision clear in your mind, all the characteristics that entrepreneurs have, persistence, resilience, integrity, all those characteristics that we talk about in the book, they show up in almost every human being. I mean, it’s like they’re in your closet behind your shoes that you haven’t worn in a while, and you just gotta get them out. This is a very important point because once you see what you want your life to look like, it’s pretty much, “Get out of my way. I’m going after it.”
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier some ideas for people if they wanna get into blue-collar work. Shadow somebody. If you see something you’re interested in, do it, go to a trade school. And this seems like if you’re a young man just starting out pretty easy ’cause you don’t have a lot of responsibility. A lot of people are not depending on you. You might not have a lot of bills, but let’s say you’re a older guy. You’ve been in a career, 10, 15, 20 years. You’re not happy with it, you’re just miserable, and you often find yourself wistfully thinking, “Man, if I can just go dig ditches, that would be it.” Have you worked with people who’ve made a career change from, say, a white-collar profession to a blue-collar profession? And if so, what do they do to make that transition successful?
Ken Rusk: Here’s another case where technology makes that easier than it’s ever been. There are a group of woodworkers in the United States. They call themselves part of a woodpreneur group, like entrepreneurs with wood. And in most cases, in a lot of cases, you’ll see that they had jobs, and the wood part was like their hobby on the weekends. So they kept at it and they did their craft and they enjoyed doing what they were doing, and in a lot of cases, they would build this beautiful furniture. And then they simply went on the Internet, and they got an Instagram page or whatever, Facebook page or whatever they do, and they started putting their products on the net, and it became what is now popularly called a side hustle. And so they slowly converted themselves from their day job, their office job to this business, and just about anybody can do that in any kind of product. I knew a girl who was a full-time waitress, and she’s in the book as well, and she always would wait on this gentleman who wanted to bake bread.
And she would sell his bread on the weekends at golf courses and home improvement shows and anywhere people would gather, and pretty soon, she sold enough bread to where she got a little space and started baking her own bread and then he retired. And then, now she has this huge bakery, which is just down the street from my house, and she’s delivering 2,000-3,000 loaves of bread a week. I mean, it’s crazy how something that you can start on the side can really turn into something, and the reason I say it happens is because if it’s driving you that… If you see it, the laws for attraction will take you there. That’s what your brain does, and it’s just awesome to see how that works.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and a lot about all the stories that you highlight in the book, is how it just… It didn’t happen. It wasn’t like, it didn’t happen overnight. It just sort of happened, they just took one step. They did the next best thing, basically, and it eventually got them to where they were. Like you talked about the guy who started off, now he designs golf courses around the world. But the way that started was he just answered a landscaping job thing, and it sort of snowballed into him becoming a golf course designer.
Ken Rusk: Art Hills is one of the most famous golf course designers in the world. I know him very well. I’ve played golf with him. He actually belongs to the same club that we do. He’s a legend in golf course design. And the funny thing about his story is he was a landscaper, and he was hanging around doing landscaping and making a good living. He was doing really well, again, good work, quality work on time, honest and ethical and all that. And at one point he decided, “You know what? I don’t wanna snow plow in the winter time. I don’t wanna go invest the money in plows. They always break down. You have to work at night. I just don’t wanna do that.” So he talked to his workers and he said, “What should we do in the winter time?” And they got the idea that they wanted to design golf courses, so he literally put a $17 ad in the newspaper that said, “Golf course designer for hire.” And he got his very first job, and now I think he’s up to nearly 300 golf courses, a large portion of… Well, I shouldn’t say a large, but probably 40 or 50 of them I’ve played on, and it’s just the most amazing story. It was so much fun to write this book because the more I interviewed people, the more I got these just awesome stories. And I could have put 50 people in this book, and I had to whittle it down to where it is. But it’s been a great experience to hear some of these really good stories.
Brett McKay: It’s so funny, ’cause like the golf course thing, that started off as a side hustle basically, and then it morphed into what he does for a living.
Ken Rusk: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Brett McKay: And have you seen that sort of same thing in your career? So you start off digging ditches, trying to fix people with these swampy basements, but you said since then you’ve added on to what you do in your business. How did you figure out where there was opportunity that was sort of… ‘Cause you couldn’t go off the wall. The things you did had to be adjacent to what you currently do, so how did you figure that out? Just talking to clients and seeing what they needed?
Ken Rusk: Yeah, I had an opportunity to help two other guys start a very small housing development out in Branson, Missouri, and I was looking to invest in some other things. I like building things. I’ve built two of my own houses now. I’ve built three or four office buildings that my company’s been in and we’re about ready to build another one, and I always like to be around the construction part of that. So when this opportunity came up, I said, “Well, I’ll help you invest in this.” It’s only 27 lots. It wasn’t a very big development, but it was more of a resort kind of thing on a lake.
And I really got into building these houses and designing the houses and making them look really cool and landscaping them ’cause I did to a lot of landscaping as a kid as well, so it was fun to do all those things. And now I’m blessed. I’m very fortunate to have been able to be successful, and so now I invest in other type of construction things. We do fire-retardant chemicals now and some other things, and it’s just been a really good, like you said, a natural progression to go to that next step and to open up some of these other companies.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked a lot about the pros of blue-collar work. You can make good money, it’s cheaper than college, there’s a high demand for it, there’s a lot of flexibility, you can be your own boss. What’s been the hardest part that you found, like sort of the trouble spots with your career in the trades, in the blue-collar work?
Ken Rusk: Well, I think, and this is what, out of necessity, what brought on some of the coaching that I do. I think, to get other people to believe that this is a really honorable path and there isn’t a stigma to it. I remember being at a party and the moms were all talking about how proud they were of their kids and where they were going to school and the degrees they were gonna get. And I remember one of them saying, “Oh yeah, well… ” I don’t know whether it was her son or somebody else, but, “He’s just going to be a plumber. Okay, just going to be a plumber.” Well, just going to be a plumber means that that guy now has 10 employees, four vans, and he’s making an absolute killing. So it’s a stigma that is undeserved, and sometimes it’s almost a default stigma that is put on this work, which is totally undeserved. Okay? So for me, I had to build a culture in my company that was so cool that people wanted to work there, and that’s where the coaching came in. I don’t have any absolute professional training in coaching. I became almost an unwilling or I should say involuntary life coach.
I love doing it, but talking to these people about the paths that they can take and how much control they can have over their own lives and their own financial futures is really something I enjoy doing. But it’s hard to convince people to come that way sometimes.
Brett McKay: Right, there’s another example of you’re natural, sort of the iteration of your career. You went from digging ditches to now you’re coaching people to help them dig ditches.
Ken Rusk: Yeah, that’s true.
Brett McKay: Well, Ken, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ken Rusk: It’s great that you asked that question. I have a Facebook page called Ken Rusk Official, where we talk a lot about the content of what we’re doing with celebrating the blue-collar worker. But the most and best feedback I’ve gotten for the book so far, which is amazing, is if you’re a business owner and you wanna build a team of really awesome entrepreneurial employees who are loyal and stick around, that’s a good place. Buy the book and then give it to them. If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, and you have somebody that you want to kind of mentor, you should give them this book and read it yourself and give it to them and then share. I’ve had a lot of that going on, which has been great feedback. Or if you just feel like you’re in your mid… Like you said, in your mid-life and you’re kind of stuck and you’re not hitting your goals, this should be a great book for you to have. And you can get it at bluecollarcash.com, but you can also get it at Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Indie Books and Apple Books, anywhere that books are sold.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Ken Rusk, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Ken Rusk: I appreciate it. Thanks to you.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Ken Rusk. He’s the author of the book, Blue-Collar Cash. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, kenrusk.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/bluecollarcash where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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