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A Growing Construction Industry to Face Challenges in Attracting and Retaining Qualified Workers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry is projected to grow 10 percent by 2024 making it one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. That would appear to be a great outlook for an industry that took massive hits during the 2008 recession. However, even as the industry is rebounding, many companies are feeling the pinch when it comes to finding seasoned, reliable and skilled workers to fill their growing workforce needs.

Tom Kerker, an operations manager with F.A. Wilhelm Construction, points out this may the lingering effects of the recession. “We lost a lot of craft workers and management. Many of them found other jobs or careers and just didn’t come back. Some of them took early retirement.”

Kerker’s generational observation also hints at another looming concern for the construction industry – as older workers retire, companies will struggle to recruit, quickly train, and retain the talent it needs to thrive.

The issue is not the number of workers available.  Population data would suggest that there will be plenty of workers to draw from, with 75.4 million millennials – those currently 19-35 years old – surpassing the roughly 74.9 million that make up the baby boomer generation, aged 51-69.  In the next several years, construction companies will be increasingly reliant on younger workers to fill their open positions, making the availability of workers with the necessary skills and experience the industry needs a significant concern.

In this, F.A. Wilhelm’s third article regarding diversity in the construction industry, we explore the challenges and benefits that these ongoing generational shifts will have for the construction industry and offer strategies for the transfer of critical knowledge and expertise to the younger generation of workers that will make up the majority of the industry’s workforce in the coming years. 



Companies that leverage generational diversity will be better prepared for workforce challenges

Much has been written about workplace tension resulting from generational differences. Avoiding generational conflict in the workplace is not always possible. However, companies that take advantage of their generational diversity by developing strategies for adapting to a younger workforce and transferring the knowledge and skills their more seasoned workers possess will be better positioned for the strong projected growth in the construction industry.

What often gets lost in the conversation about age-related issues in the workplace is the fact that both generations bring a lot to the table. Baby boomers have a wealth of experience in the industry to share. And, millennials bring new technologies and a strong desire to discover new efficiencies.


Embracing the challenges and benefits of millennial savvy with new technologies

Thomas Jacoby works as a virtual construction engineer for Wilhelm and has been with the company for three years. He said as a millennial, working in a multigenerational setting offers access to a wealth of institutional knowledge that his generation can benefit from. “The knowledge and resources we have at our company are unprecedented for the industry we’re in,” he said. “We have so many kinds of expertise in-house I can go to almost anybody to find an answer without having to go outside the company.”

arrow2Jacoby said one of the biggest benefits his generation brings to the industry is technological savvy, but acknowledged that his generation’s fondness for technology can also create tension.  “We’re an industry that moves slowly,” he said. “Projects take a long time, and everyone’s been doing it the same way for a long time.” He added, “There’s a lot of knowledge about how to do things more efficiently with technology. But, some people rely too much on technology to solve their problems.” Jacoby said that when working with new technologies in a multigenerational setting, “you have to have a lot of give and take.”

Jacoby said getting everyone on board with new technologies can be difficult, even if they offer a better way to achieve desired results. While his generation grew up with technology, older workers often have to adapt by getting more training in order to take advantage of newer technology, Jacoby said. He added that fortunately, regardless of their comfort level with the technology, most people are willing to work together to get the job done in the most efficient way possible.

Tom Kerker, an operations manager for Wilhelm with 30 years in the business, agrees that technology has made many aspects of construction work more efficient. Kerker said, “We used to have to draw a picture and fax it to the architect to explain a problem. Now it’s a photo on a device. And, with the software available now, you can draw on the photo and make notes and sent it to the architect from a handheld device from the field.”

Katie Ross, a millennial working for Wilhelm, said technology makes her job as a marketing coordinator much easier. “It’s very easy to reach anyone at any time,” she said. She concedes that communication technologies like email and cell phones can also lead to misunderstandings, which make human interaction all the more important. “Technology requires that you make an extra effort to interact,” she said, adding that “eye contact is something that as millennials, we have to learn to really use to engage other people in the room.”  Ross said mannerisms and self-presence are very important to demonstrate to colleagues that “you’re engaged and professional and using your resources to improve efficiency and processes.”

Ross said that when it comes to technology, “you just have to find a balance in utilizing what works from the past and adding new ways that complement and enhance the outcomes.”


Strategies for transferring the industry knowledge and expertise boomers possess

With so many baby boomers on the cusp of retirement and with so many younger workers joining the ranks of the construction industry, there is an unprecedented – but fleeting – window of opportunity for older workers to leave the industry stronger through mentoring.

Jacoby said he believes that mentoring is going to become vitally important for the future of the construction industry as a means of transferring important knowledge and skills to the younger workers coming into the industry. He said the more experienced workers have a lot of institutional knowledge and experience that the younger workers can benefit from. “If they’re not willing to pass that down, you lose that knowledge.” He said,

According to Jacoby, Wilhelm does a good job of creating a workplace that fosters mentorship. Ross said most of the mentoring at Wilhelm is informal and varies depending on the demographics of each department, with more widespread mentoring in larger departments with more people and more significant age differences. But, she said, it also happens in small departments like hers with just four people.



Jacoby said mentoring is important regardless of the kind of work people do or what department they work in, “It can be helpful to have someone you can go to directly – that first point of contact – whether that’s in the trades or in management.”

Ross agreed saying, “It’s critical for our industry to move forward to have those mentoring relationships so that we’re not reinventing the wheel and are doing things as efficiently as possible.”

Mentoring also benefits the individual and can lead to better retention of qualified workers. By fostering such relationships in the workplace younger workers are able to navigate the industry more easily in their early careers and are often more comfortable asking questions, making them far more likely to stay with the company in the longer term.

Sue Booth, a baby boomer who has worked for Wilhelm as an administrative assistance for almost 20 years, said that mentoring might look different depending on where people are in their careers. For those with more time in, it may be more like a “focused education” than what people commonly think of as mentoring.

Booth said that cross-training is just as important as mentoring, especially in the short term. With so many in management within 10-15 years of retiring, she said, “That’s going to sneak up on us really fast.” Booth said the need to train younger workers on many of the processes that older employees currently handle is becoming more and more apparent.

According to Kerker, Wilhelm does an exceptional job of mentoring employees new to the industry. “With so many retiring and leaving, each person ought to pick out a protégé and work with them as best they can.” Kerker said he was fortunate to have great mentors when he was new in the industry and that he and others of his generation need to pay that forward.


Attracting and retaining the best and brightest

In addition to transferring critical knowledge through mentoring and other types of training, companies will benefit from strategies aimed at attracting and retaining talented young workers. Strategies that 1) foster a better understanding of what younger workers can expect in a career in the construction industry and 2) address their need for greater engagement in the workplace and their communities will lead to more successful recruiting and better retention.

Tom Kerker, an operations manager with F.A. Wilhelm Construction who helps with Wilhelm’s recruiting at colleges, said it’s important to help young people to understand what to expect early in their careers. “We encourage students to take advantage of industry internships and get involved in career- related college activities. Kerker says Wilhelm looks for students with industry experience and the initiative to take on leadership roles in school and in the community. “College gives them a good base of knowledge, but there still is so much to learn,” said  Kerker.

Jacoby explained that the optimism of his generation can sometimes be mistaken as a sense of entitlement. “We are hopeful in how we look at things and what we’re looking for. Some people might think that everything was handed to us as kids. Having that reaction, we understand we have to work for it.”

Jacoby added that for many of his fellow millennials, the nature of the work matters more than recognition or climbing the corporate ladder quickly.  “At Wilhelm, even if you don’t have the big title, you’re still working on high profile and important projects you can be very proud of. And, if you do good work, you’re going to get those higher positions.”arrow

Booth agreed, saying that with regard to the perception that millennials are entitled doesn’t ring true in her experience. She noted that many of the industry’s younger workers are now coming into the profession with a college education. “Most of our millennials had to work to get through college. The ones that are successful are not successful because someone owes them something – they have learned that you have to work hard for what you want.”

Ross said her generation also wants to be valued for what they bring to the table – a willingness to be open to all opinions is important. “I enjoy the broad range of opinions and input on work proposals you can get in a more diverse workplace. It’s nice to have a well-rounded group to understand all the angles.”

The younger generation of workers also have different expectations than baby boomers have in terms of flexibility, according to Kerker. “It’s a lifestyle thing,” he said. “We know that to have and retain good help, we’re going to have to be flexible. But, you still need to keep structure in the organization.” He said some aspects of the industry, particularly onsite jobs, are not amenable to flexible scheduling. “The crews get there early in the morning. And, if you’re not out there with them, you’re not going to know what they need,” he said, adding, “You can’t support them from home.” Kerker said Wilhelm initiated flexible schedules about 3-4 years ago. He said, “It’s harder to make that work for operations but works well for some of the administrative and other more office workers.”

Kerker said Wilhelm has done other things to help appeal to a younger workforce, such as tailoring insurance benefits to better meet the needs of younger workers and offering other benefits that all workers can enjoy, such as a wellness programs. “We also remodeled our office to tailor it more to the new generation,” he said. “On the second floor, we tore the office walls down so we can all work in a common area, a team environment. And, we’ve remodeled part of the first floor to open up a social hub area.”

Ross said that engagement in community causes is also an important part of career satisfaction for her generation. “Another thing that drives me so close to Wilhelm is the way we impact the community,” Ross said, noting her company’s sponsorship of Backpack Attack, Habitat for Humanity and other local and regional charities.


Age diversity and generational shifts offers unprecedented opportunities for the industry

While generational differences in the workplace can lead to conflict, smart companies will find ways to leverage these differences to their advantage, developing strategies for:

  • Embracing new technologies and allowing younger workers to use them where possible to discover new efficiencies and improve processes
  • Transferring the wealth of knowledge and expertise baby boomers possess to younger workers that will soon comprise the majority of the industry’s workforce
  • Offering benefits and implementing workplace practices that appeal to the millennial generation

Booth said Wilhelm is one of those companies. Having recognized the importance of diversity in all its forms – gender, ethnic, and age diversity –Wilhelm has adopted a “diversity mindset” that will serve the company well as the industry continues to grow. Upper management takes its responsibilities to employees seriously. By implementing continual changes that create a corporate culture in which all employees – from older to younger, from field to management – can thrive, Wilhelm understands better than most what it means to value our greatest resource – our people.

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