Without question, the retirement of the baby boomer generation is creating an experience gap in the construction industry. In 2017, the National Center for Construction Education & Research reported that approximately 41 percent of construction workers will retire by 2031.1But what they did not know in 2017 was the future global pandemic would drive many baby boomers into early retirement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 364,000 job openings in the construction industry in January 2022. It is unclear whether those older workers are fully retired or weighing their options and their wallets. While the baby boomer generation contemplates future golden years, the construction industry faces unique challenges.
It is a worker’s job market with companies vying to fill labor shortages. Candidates are in the driver’s seat often being selective about where they work, how they work, compensation, and benefits. Millennials/Gen Y (Born 1981 to 1996) and Gen Z (Born 1997 to 2012) have embraced the gig economy and are looking for work situations that suit their financial and time needs.2Given that both generations grew up immersed in the digital age, technology is intuitive for them. Millennials want work that gives them a sense of fulfillment and a work-life balance.3Gen Z is just hitting the workforce in larger numbers, but they are also looking for a work-life balance and are focused on personal well-being.4Gen Z is socially conscious and often expects their employers to be socially aware as well (think ESG issues here).
So, what can the construction industry do to bridge the experience gap between what the retiring baby boomers know and what the millennials and Gen Zers will need to run construction companies? Focusing on leadership, mentorship, technology, and flexibility will be key in engaging all generations of the workforce and developing strategies to bridge the gap.
Let’s take a page from the NFL playbook when it comes to leadership. In recent years, we have seen highly successful teams led by some of the youngest coaches in league history. What we must remember is that these coaches are not on an island; they are surrounded by seasoned professionals who may be nearing retirement but have years of wisdom to share. Leadership development programs can draw management skills out of employees who may seem “too young” to take on such roles. Much like providing apprenticeships at the early stages of a craft career, developing leadership skills within the workforce rather than waiting for someone to stand out can help bridge the experience gap. One way to do this is through mentorship.
Developing an inclusive culture regardless of age5 creates an environment of mutual understanding that others will likely have differing attitudes, priorities, styles, talents, and values. These should be embraced. Ramsey Solutions recommends putting a culture in place.6Consider asking your up-and-coming leaders what that culture should look like; buy-in will occur naturally when people feel like they helped build a vision.
Not everyone will aspire to run a company or be the boss, but the knowledge held by baby boomers should not disappear at retirement. Intergenerational mentorship programs focused on teaching, not telling, are a great way to convey knowledge. As Vince Lombardi said, “They call it coaching, but it is teaching.”7
Another way to keep talent in the pipeline is teaming up with high school STEM programs, technical colleges, and universities. These are natural talent pipelines and provide another opportunity to impart wisdom and experience to the next generation.
While construction may not seem like the obvious choice for someone interested in a career in technology, embracing technology may actually be key in engaging the younger workforce and adopting innovative technologies that can bring huge value to an organization. According to a Dell Technologies survey of Gen Z students, 91 percent say that technology in the workplace would influence their job choice.8Additionally, they found that Gen Zers are willing to be technology mentors at their jobs. In 2016 ProCore offered up the idea of assistance through the use of Smart Glasses for offsite remote expert help. The field worker puts on the glasses and a remote expert can see what is happening in real time and talk the field worker through the advice.9
Creating flexible work arrangements may be difficult in the construction industry, but there are companies making it work. We learned the value of flexibility during the pandemic. While baby boomers might have felt expected to show up on site every day, millennials and Gen Z want as much flexibility as possible. Flexible work arrangements cover much more than just virtual versus jobsite—consider workload, work patterns, workplace, and work-life balance. Flexibility is not only critical in retaining current employees, but it can also expand the pipeline of potential recruits.
There is no doubt the pandemic accelerated the growing experience gap in the construction industry, making it more important than ever to understand and engage the multigenerational workforce. Organizations that recognize the particular skill sets and motivators unique to each generation will be a step ahead in leveraging intergenerational leadership as a tool for bridging the skills gap.
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