ERIC BORDEN HAS SPENT MORE THAN 25 YEARS WORKING IN THE KANSAS CITY CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY as a mechanic, driver and heavy equipment operator. If you met him on the street, his profession probably wouldn’t surprise you. He spends his days in a hard hat, work boots, jeans and a neon safety vest, and he’s very proud of the work he does.
However, you might be surprised to learn that Eric’s alter ego is a poet. Eric has written poetry since he was a kid. He sees or hears something, thinks deeply about what he’s witnessed for a bit, then puts those ideas into words.
“I hear from a lot of people that I don’t look like a poet,” he jokes. “I don’t even know what a poet is supposed to look like.”
Growing up, his grandmother was very supportive of his writing, and she gave him some advice he’ll always remember: Never write in anger. (More people need to heed this wise woman’s words.)
In 2014, Eric attended the birthday party when his best friend’s son turned one. His friend had passed away the year before, and Eric had made a point of staying involved with his friend’s family. At this party, several people got into a conversation about going to college, and another guest made the offhand, disparaging comment that the world will always need ditch diggers.
Eric took offense to that comment. He’d grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Olathe filled with tradesmen, and he’d always looked up to them. As a teenager, he’d planned to drop out of school on his 16th birthday, but after getting the opportunity to take “vo-tech” classes in high school, his entire life changed.
That casual comment made at a baby’s birthday party stuck in Eric’s head for about two years until his response finally came together in verse. The poem “Ditch Diggers” has now become a well-known love ballad for the trades. In 2018, he first posted a version he made with some friends. In 2019, the Association of General Contractors sponsored a full production of the video, which immediately went viral, reaching more than one million views in the first 24 hours.
WITH HIS NEWFOUND FAME, ERIC BEGAN DOING EVERYTHING HE COULD TO INSPIRE OTHERS TO ENTER THE TRADES. Even now, a few years after the initial buzz of the poem’s debut has died down, he’s still being invited to speak at about a dozen graduations and events each year.
“When I show up at a conference or a school to speak in my dusty work clothes, it adds a cool factor because I actually do this for a living,” he said. “I once spoke to a room of about 100 guidance counselors over my lunch break, looking like the quintessential worker, and I got a standing ovation. I always figure if my words make a difference and a few more people start pushing the trades, it will be worth it.”
He receives letters from parents who say that despite the strong salaries offered today in the trades, many didn’t understand why their child didn’t want to go to a four-year college — until they heard his poem.
“The poem has helped many parents understand,” he said. “To see the light.”
He’s also received letters from people who said his words inspired them to donate to a technical school for scholarships, as well as kids who ask his permission to show it at their graduations.
“That’s what it is for,” he said. “To inspire people.”
DESPITE THE FACT THAT PEOPLE ON JOB SITES SOMETIMES RECOGNIZE HIS FACE OR VOICE, FAME HASN’T CHANGED ERIC. Today, he’s a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 101, and he recently began working for Beemer Construction. He has worked his way up to making about $40/hour and has done a little bit of everything on a job site — driven boom trucks, worked in safety, installed shoring to protect people underground, and operated cranes, excavators, wheel loaders and dozers.
However, even after all these years, he still absolutely loves what he does.
“There isn’t a day when I’m running a piece of equipment that I feel like I’m working,” he said, admitting that while the work might seem dangerous, if you pay attention, it’s safe and it doesn’t even feel like work. “It feels like playing in a giant sandbox, like when you were a kid.”
He described what it’s like to work on a site, and how he often finds himself watching the other tradespeople — working in fields such as electrical, plumbing or HVAC — with a sense of awe.
“There is a beauty to the knowledge those people have. I try to absorb it when I’m around them. How much they know, from the safety to the quality side. They aren’t going through the motions. They know what they’re doing. I just love it.”
Once he made a commercial agreement to allow a company to use the poem in its advertising, but he doesn’t plan to ever do that again. He wasn’t happy with the end product. Instead, he hopes he and his words can continue inspiring people for years to come.
“People say there’s no pride in construction anymore,” he said. “If people don’t have pride in what they’re doing, they need to do something else. There’s a romance to construction. All of the different trades doing their part. It’s so cool to see a project come together and be a part of it.”
If your school or organization would be interested in having Eric Borden speak at an upcoming event, he can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a Facebook page where he works to inspire the next generation of construction and trades workers.