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By Jeff Wing
October 3, 2016
A huge brain drain is occurring in the construction industry, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. Baby Boomers, that part of the U.S. population born between 1946 and 1964, are marching into their retirement years and leaving the workforce in droves; and Boomers comprise 40% of the construction workforce. There were 76 million kids born in the U.S. during this period, and as working adults they built, actually and metaphorically, much of the world we inhabit today. To put it bluntly, they know a lot. Since an estimated 54% of construction managers are Boomers, a serious wave of institutional knowledge is about to say goodbye to the jobsite.
As a slice of U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product), construction has literally never been stronger. The first quarter of fiscal 2016 put the hard hat contribution to GDP at $761 billion dollars––an all-time high. But productivity and growth are indeed slowing down, seemingly in step with the incremental departure of the Boomers. These departing Boomers could be described as our ambassadors from the Golden Age of construction. Apprentice-based trade skills have an uncertain future, as fewer and fewer young people are interested in even entering construction, and even now projects are vying for the decreasing numbers of specialists in the field.
What’s worse, as time passes, there are fewer skilled mentors on site to pass these valued trades skills along, even to those young workers who DO want to take up the torch and run with it. By some estimates, there will be a shortage of 31 million skilled tradespeople by 2020. There is some bleak hope that the manufacturing sector’s trend toward prefabricated manufacturing will somewhat mitigate the expected flight of trades skills, but that’s the sort of “optimism” that has as its basis the hope that fewer skilled workers will be needed who hold these world-building skill sets.
The industry is already panicked by the ongoing shortage of skilled workers; those who left the construction trades in 2008 when the housing bubble burst and ushered in the Great Recession. Today that shortage is responsible for real pain in the sector. The National Association of Home Builders conducted a survey which found that 69% of its members were feeling the effects of the qualified worker shortage. This isn’t scholarly economic theory at work, but real losses and setbacks for an industry that by all other measures is pushing forward with all its considerable strength. The domestic workforce generally is seeing a mass departure of Boomers (the group is estimated to be retiring across all U.S. work sectors at a rate of 10,000 a day. Yes––A DAY. There is understandable mild panic in the construction industry. Is there a way to capture the vast knowledge of the departing Boomer wave before it rolls out to retirement sea?
As the workforce demographic begins to dramatically shift, strategies are emerging across all sectors to transfer deep institutional knowledge from departing retirees to their younger successors within the company structure. BAE, a global aerospace company, has instituted a sort of knowledge transfer group model. As an older worker with acknowledged legacy expertise begins to approach retirement at BAE, an actual knowledge-transfer team is instituted. Team members are those younger workers in the company whose responsibilities and expertise fall into the same area as that of the departing older worker. During a series of regularly planned sessions, the younger workers ask their specific questions of the older worker, whose role effectively becomes that of a group mentor (in practice if not in name). In many cases the departing worker will begin to hand off actual projects and responsibilities to the younger team members in anticipation of leaving the company.
Another practice developing among companies preparing to lose their older workers is the establishment of a form of apprenticeship, wherein the more experienced older worker is followed from task to task by the younger worker with the same skill set needs. A program of this kind means the new hire(s) must be brought aboard with more than the usual lead time, in order that there be plenty of time for the knowledge transfer. Likewise, the departing worker may be asked to produce a desk manual, an organized and detailed description of the older workers’ responsibilities, even down to the level of procedural detail that may not be included in the institutional training. A company may also want to consider allowing a retired worker to return to the company workforce on a part-time basis in order to formalize the older worker’s mentoring arrangement with those who have succeeded him, while affirming the retiree’s very real value to the company, its mission, and its new workers.
In addition to these programs for transferring knowledge, there is a tech workaround that can fill the skilled labor gap while those solutions are in process. The new generation of Smart Glasses are being put to good use as a virtual training tool by companies who are feeling the skilled labor pinch. It works like this: your trainee in the field or on the job site is busily attacking the task at hand and hits a snag. Fortunately, (s)he is wearing a pair of Smart Glasses; a pair of safety glasses with a value-added—live video streaming and two-way audio. Think of a walkie-talkie with a camera and you get the idea—sort of. These lightweight spectacles are sleekly designed, and easy to wear and use. In practice, their use allows the field worker to receive detailed instructions (when that need arises) from an offsite remote expert, who sees in real time the work being done and advises on the task at hand.
Significantly, some companies who have made use of smart glasses this way find they have solved the problem that is at the heart of construction’s problem looking forward—Baby Boomer retention. Experienced older workers often retire not because they weary of the work, but because their bodies can no longer bear up under the physical rigors of the job. Smart Glasses allow a company to present a new option to the treasured older worker who has left the trade; a chance to “beam in” real time expert knowledge from the comfort of home. There is no substitute for an onsite skilled worker, and that problem will be addressed. In the meantime, virtual mentoring holds much promise.
Both problems in construction—the shortage of skilled labor and the ongoing exodus of the Baby Boomer from the job site—speak to a changing employment picture that must take into account the changing individual worker. The future of construction will be defined by technological innovation, and that may be the salvation of the sector. Millennials as a group are said to be “Digital Natives,” having been literally raised around tech, and their complete comfort and familiarity with it makes them the perfect cohort to take the industry to its next level. The younger workers who are coming into construction are well-versed in the mobile tech some of the older workers may have adopted reluctantly.
Glass half empty: at this time, younger workers are not being drawn to construction in numbers sufficient to compensate for their departing older colleagues, and that looks like it may well prove to be the next mountain that needs climbing. As half a century’s worth of foundational construction workers take their leave of the jobsite, let’s see to it that something of their knowledge legacy is passed along to their younger successors, whatever their numbers. With any luck, the energy and restless innovation of the incoming young workers can be joined to the Boomers’ half century of world-forming know-how to build a new construction industry that remains second to none in the world.
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