The proverbial iceberg the construction industry is barreling toward is a dearth of rising talent among its ranks. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to retire in huge numbers, fewer younger workers are strapping on their work boots and hardhats to take their place.
More than a million construction jobs have been lost since 2005, according to Forbes. And although the greater economy has rebounded since the Great Recession, the construction industry’s numbers have not recovered at the same pace.
The reasons for this are many. Some say Millennials simply aren’t interested in physical labor like construction work, choosing instead for a less physically taxing career. Others say more Millennials are pursuing white-collar corporate careers in offices. Forbes cited a Pew Research study that shows 27% of Millennial women and 21% of Millennial men have received a bachelor’s degree, compared to 17% and 14% of Baby Boomer men and women, respectively.
“Millennials are looking at the way construction is done, and it doesn't reflect how they work or think."
Millennials demand things from their careers that were unthinkable in previous generations. They crave flexible schedules, highly technological and innovative environments, the ability to work independently and a clear path to upward mobility. This represents a sea change in how construction companies have operated for decades, and a seismic shift in how the bulk of its current workforce is used to doing things.
Ashir Badami, Senior Product Marketing Manager for the platform at Procore, says the industry’s slow pace in adapting to the changing generational mindset is partly to blame.
“Millennials are looking at the way construction is done, and it doesn't reflect how they work or think. It’s not in line with how they function. Their mental models are different, they’re digital natives in many cases. Their sense of how to manage, process and work with information and do work is very different. In the construction space, the industry is changing, and making some serious inroads, but it’s not at the stage where processes are being redesigned across the board. If you’re used to getting an Uber and being able to order food from your phone and you go into an environment where everything is paper driven, that’s a huge paradigm shift.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, just 7.3% of construction workers were aged 20-24, compared to 20.7% aged 55 and older. That’s not a sustainable trend for the industry, and failure to adapt could spell disaster down the road.
The demand for construction work continues to soar, and many companies have turned to automation such as VR/AR and drone technology as a stop-gap measure in the face of a diminishing workforce. But human workers will always be a necessary component of construction, so the onus is on the industry to attract and retain Millennial talent.
“We can automate as much as possible, we can digitize all we want, but we have to remember we’re still going to require people with experience and expertise."
“We can automate as much as possible, we can digitize all we want, but we have to remember we’re still going to require people with experience and expertise. At some point it becomes an issue, we need to transfer the knowledge from generation to generation because that’s what helps contractors become stronger. What makes good contractors is good expertise and prior experience. Some of that has to come from professionals in the field, so the apprenticeship programs construction has had is an important component to that. If you don't attract Millennials, who are you going to pass it on to? Eventually, you’re going to hit a wall where there’s no one to share information with,” says Badami.
The technological shift is a big part of attracting Millennial talent and making up for the labor shortfall, but it’s going to take more than that, says Badami.
“We hear a lot about VR and AR and drones, those are very real possibilities moving forward and will definitely impact the jobsite, but you have to have people on the job, you have to have that layer of creativity and understanding that machines won’t bring. That’s got to come from the next generation, who are ultimately best suited to utilize these systems, but we have to bring them in so we can use them. There’s no point having a robotic exoskeleton if there’s nobody to put into it.”