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By Jeff Wing
October 24, 2016
At this writing, domestic construction is a roaring success by almost any measure. Following the disaster of the 2008 Great Recession, the country is now in its seventh year of economic recovery, closing in on the record for the longest U.S. recovery in modern history; the 10 years from ’91 – ’01. Domestic construction, never one to sit idly by, has been right in the middle of that recovery. As a portion of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) U.S. construction right now is at an all-time high, totaling $761.20 USD Billion in the first quarter of 2016. Looking ahead, still more construction growth is projected, and not the wild, unsustainably accelerated growth that looks good at first, then later collapses like a soufflé. Construction is at the cusp of a period of healthy, steady, substantive growth. Things are looking pretty good, except for one small hitch; there are more construction jobs to be done than there are skilled workers to do them.
Construction has climbed back from the 2008 abyss with an admirable resilience. The alarming result is that today construction’s orders have outstripped labor’s ability to keep up. 2008 was a watershed year for construction, and not in a good way. When the housing sector went belly-up that year the construction industry took a huge dive––a collapse that so stunned the workforce, many construction workers took it as a sign that they should find a steadier means of feeding their families. Nationwide the industry lost 2.3 million workers during the so-named Great Recession, many of whom took the opportunity to retrain and look for work outside construction. Those who left are by and large not coming back. And there’s more.
A generation of Baby Boomers is retiring. Since 2011, 75 million Americans (those born between 1946 and 1964 and still in the work force) have been leaving the ranks of the employed through retirement, and at a rate of about 10,000 a day. As the seasoned construction generation takes its leave, the Millennials (young people born roughly between 1980 and 1995) are not rushing in to fill the breach. This may speak to the industry’s need to rebrand how the tech-absorbed Millennials view the role of a construction worker today. It has also been suggested that the much remarked-upon decline of the trades, both as a matter of professional choice and as an educational option in our public schools, has simply dampened the numbers of qualified replacements for the retiring Boomers.
Whatever the case, the skilled worker shortage is pumping the brakes on what would otherwise be construction’s robust forward motion. If the domestic construction industry continues its organic growth, as it would be expected to in normal circumstances, the labor shortage will only become more dire.
There is an old saying: “Everybody complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.” Some problems are so large and so deeply systemic, one feels helpless to address the core issues. At first glance, construction’s skilled labor shortage seems like just such a monumental problem. Is it? One thing is immediately obvious: construction’s skilled labor hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of the next workforce majority—the Millennials. How do we create a climate that sparks their interest in the construction sector? It’s projected that by 2020 nearly half the U.S. workforce will be comprised of millennials. Is there some quality that is broadly native to the Millennial population that holds the answers?
Labor force observers and employers alike have been weighing in on the matter of the Millennials for some time, and the conversation has been interesting. It’s a fact that the Millennials’ top four brands are Nike, Apple, Samsung, and Sony. So as a demographic they are provably immersed in the technology culture. No huge surprise there. But what is surprising some social researchers is that Millennials are actually found to be innovators in search of opportunities to stretch. Furthermore, Millennials prefer a collaborative work environment over a competitive one, and are looking for a boss who will also act as a mentor. Far from feeling entitled, Millennials actually want to work hard, but they don’t just want to work for the sake of earning a living. They want to personally innovate and push envelopes. They want a conversation at work, feedback, and collaboration. They understand reporting structures, of course, but are not interested in top-down directives. Why would the “connected” generation want anything else? It only makes sense.
Millennials were raised by helicopter parents, and it shows. This bike helmet generation is more than aware of the many ways one can be injured, in all walks of life. Construction news that features lethal falls from scaffolding may be persuading Millennials to look elsewhere for their daily bread. Construction HR is encouraged to emphasize workplace safety in discussions with Millennials. That generation is also politically informed; some might say politically correct. They will bridle at the idea of a workplace where women are objectified, one where gender and other stereotypes seem to be reinforced by an old boy culture. This goes back to a rebranding of the construction worker in our culture, but also goes to an actual change of climate on the jobsite. These two factors will need to go hand in hand if the Millennials are going to take up the torch and join the construction industry.
Mike Rowe in his much-talked about Popular Mechanics article recalls being stunned by a poster on the wall in his high school guidance counselor’s office. A split picture juxtaposed a clean and happy college grad holding a diploma against a beat-looking blue collar worker in coveralls. The caption? “Work Smart, Not Hard.” Millennials are not averse to hard work, but they want it to mean something, whether the collar is blue or white.
In his article, Rowe laments that “…we no longer equate dirt with success, but we should.” To their credit, the next construction workforce is less about traditional success than about work with meaning. Construction in that sense should be an easy sell if properly positioned in the eyes of this eager new labor cohort.
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