How to be as Successful as a Brick Layer: The Power of Specialization

I know a guy who's a brick layer. When you hear that someone is a brick layer what comes to mind? Did you think of someone who does manual labor at low wages and is out of work every time there's a downturn in the economy? That may be an accurate picture of most brick layers, but it doesn't describe the guy I know. The guy I know only works on the projects he wants to work on, makes more money than most white collar professionals you know, and has a waiting list of jobs no matter what the economy is doing. Why? What make him so different from other brick layers? Why is he able to choose his work, name his price, and put jobs on a waiting list? The answer is specialization. 


The Expert

You can find and hire brick layers who can build a new retaining wall or brick up the face of a new house anywhere. Things are a little different if you have want to fix some water damage to the 200 year brick wall the surrounds the cemetery of the oldest church yard in town. Or if you want to add an addition to the Civil War era brick plantation house that has been in your family since the 1800s. In those cases you need a brick layer who understands the architectural style of your historical building and knows how centuries old mortar and bricks were made. You want someone who can fix your wall or build the addition in such a way that you can't tell where the old bricks end and the new bricks start. You need someone like the guy I know. Actually, if you live where I live, where there are a lot of old brick buildings and structures that have distinctive regional differences and brick colors you don't need someone like the guy I know, you need the guy I know, because he's the best, and nobody else can do what he can as well as he can do it.

The guy I know is a brick laying specialist in historical masonry, and even more specifically in the regional styles and materials that are unique to the part of the country where he lives. It is that unique knowledge that allows him to pick his jobs, make many times more money than others in his profession, and maintain a waiting list of clients who are begging for his work. When it comes to maximizing your opportunities and earning potential the key is to specialize. 

The Law of Supply and Demand

The more unique and specialized your skills and abilities are, the more options you will have, and the more money you will make. The reason for this is as basic as the economic law of supply and demand. The better you are at something, and the more unique that thing is that you are great at, the less people there are that can do what you do. That means a low supply. If there is any demand for what you do then the less supply there is the greater the opportunities and the more money you can earn for what you do. This foundational truth applies to any skill set in any industry, from laying brick to writing computer code. 

Key Guidelines

Knowing this truth allows you to apply it to your career and your life, keeping these points in mind: 

  • Always seek to build skill in your areas of expertise. 
  • Whenever possible choose to build more specialized skill as opposed to general skill.
  • Remember that low supply is only advantageous when there is demand, so always pay attention to larger trends in your field and industry, and make sure you are specializing in skills that will be in demand (see below for more about this). 

Start Now

It takes time to build skill, and the more specialized the skill the more time it usually takes to become really good. That means you should start as early as possible. It doesn't matter how old you are, if you are reading this you should commit to building specialized skill now. If you have already started, or are in the middle of your career, then you can start by doing a quick assessment of where you are in your industry or field and what is needed.

Ask Some Critical Questions If You Have a Career

Start with yourself. What are your current skills? Do you do some things better than others? Are you interested in a certain aspect or area of your industry or field that you could build specialized skill in? 

Next, look at the field or industry where you are working. What are the new trends in your business? Where are the problems everyone needs help with? What does your boss and colleagues always complain about and find challenging? What are the leaders in your field doing that everyone else isn't? If the business you are working for isn't a leader, what are the necessary skills that the business needs and doesn't have that is holding it back? 

Finally, consider the connection between you and the needs of your field. Is there specialized training available? What would it take to learn the skills you need? What is the best way to learn these skills? Can you get paid to learn them? Can you learn them from your current position? Do you need to change jobs, or companies, in order to master the skills you need? Asking these questions, and pursuing the answers, will put you on the path of gaining the specialized skill that will set you apart. 

Master the Drive Through Window

What if you are a young worker in a starting job that isn't in your target industry? You should still seek to specialize and build unique skill.

Let's assume you work at a fast food restaurant. You're not sure of what you want to do eventually, but you know you like working with people. One of your options might be to specialize at working the drive through window. Being better than everyone else would mean being able to do multiple things at once and work under pressure. It would mean being able to stay calm and professional and unusually friendly even when your customers aren't. It would mean being able to communicate and speak clearly and effectively to keep orders accurate and customers happy. If you were to get better at these skills then your co-workers it would likely mean a better hourly wage, and maybe the ability to pick a better schedule. It would also mean that you would have gained an early start at building talent in some specialized skills (working under pressure, great customer service, clear and effective communication) that will be useful in many different jobs, careers, and industries after you move on from fast food. 

Specialized, Not Obsolete

Many people worry about specializing because they fear that if they become too specialized, and demand disappears, that they will become obsolete. In world where change is constant this is an understandable concern, but not a valid one. People with specialized skills become obsolete because they fail to see, or refuse to see, the oncoming change. Specializing doesn't mean you build a set of skills and stagnate, it means that you constantly look to continue to specialize, and that means you need to be constantly aware of the new needs and trends in your field. 

One of the guaranteed byproducts of building specialized skill is that in the process of gaining that skill you will also be building other, highly transferable, skills. Perhaps you have learned a niche computer coding language that has now become outdated. That specific skill in that particular code may no longer be in demand, but in the process you have built transferable skills in other aspects of coding. You have  learned the needs and problems that code was designed to address, learned how to learn a coding language, have made contacts in the computer coding field, and probably a half dozen other skills. Each of these additional skills you have learned, and the experience you have gained, can serve as the launch pad to additional skill development and specialization in new areas that have high demand. 


Building on a Specialized Foundation

The brick layer I know is wise enough to know that he doesn't want to always be laying brick. Recently he has launched a new venture. Over the last few years he has been experimenting with a new way to make custom bricks. With his process he can make bricks that can match any historical color and style, and he can make smaller batches of bricks for smaller repair jobs. His specialized knowledge has opened up an entire new realm of possibilities, and his custom brick making business is beginning to take off. Once again he finds that there is hardly anyone else who is able to do what he can do and make and produce the kind of bricks for the specialized jobs his customers are interested in. The demand is there, and he finds that he is one of the very few suppliers.

Business is good.