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Mutually Beneficial: Boomers and Millennials


The construction industry is notorious for being slow to change, with few players willing to risk pushing the envelope to achieve levels of efficiency beyond what they’ve been content with for decades. As KPMG points out in its 2016 Global Construction Survey, “Buildings are getting taller … bridges are spanning longer, and the pace of change is such that technology projects are virtually obsolete as soon as they’re completed.” Yet, the report states, “Little innovation has happened in engineering and construction firms over the last 15 years. This has to change and [construction firms] need to drive the innovation in order to stay competitive.”

Could these challenges be solved by pushing for the adoption of cutting-edge technology for use by the entire construction team? Or by boosting collaborative problem-solving on the jobsite to find new ways to address old inefficiencies? Or even by encouraging transparency and leadership at all levels for the creation of an environment where “business as usual” is simply unacceptable? 

In short, by hiring more Millennials? 

Rather than isolating the company’s existing multi-generational workforce, the result has been to inject a fresh perspective into the company.  

For too long, Millennials had gotten a bad rap when it comes to their work ethic. But now that the construction industry is recognizing that attracting this generation is the best solution to its growing skilled labor shortage, Millennials are turning away from construction. In April, the National Association of Home Builders conducted a poll of adults ages 18 to 25 to gauge this generation’s thoughts about a career in construction trades. Of those who knew the field in which they wanted to have a career (74%), only 3% expressed interest in the construction trades. 

According to the poll, young adults want nothing to do with a career in the trades because they can find less physically-demanding options in their desired pay range (48%) and they believe that construction work is difficult (32%), which … it is. But it can also be satisfying and meaningful work, and this generation has a reputation for seeking purposeful work. 

Construction companies that are ready to make a change—not just to their hiring, but to the way they approach projects—might take a cue from Shiel Sexton, an Indianapolis-based construction management and general contracting company focused on the commercial market. 

Back in 2015, the company began a campaign to attract Millennials to meet growing demand for labor. It was slow going, until the company made a number of major changes to its environment that resonated in the way it got work done. 

The company relocated its offices and redesigned its space to shake the feel of a 50-year-old construction company mired in tradition. The new space was built with a focus on collaboration and technology, with a healthy dose of artsy finishes.

But as Ben Wilhelm, president, Carolinas Region, of Shiel Sexton points out, the change went deeper than new finishes. The company began to speak the Millennial language—focusing on opportunity, work-fun balance, responsive feedback, personal development, and career agility. 

“Typically we discuss the idea of having a lot of responsibility quickly,” Wilhelm says. “We also promote transparency so people can be aware of what is going on at a high level so there are no surprises and people can stay connected at all levels. We also promote an open door approachability so people trust that they can ask questions without fear of being cut-off or undermined. All management employees have iPads and smartphones covered as a benefit. We also do not micromanage people on their work schedules unless it is perceived to be abused.”

Rather than isolating the company’s existing multi-generational workforce, the result has been to inject a fresh perspective into the company. 

“Millennials are good at introducing new ideas and challenging conventional wisdom. I also find they are eager to learn and work with good direction,” Wilhelm says. “To some extent I am sure there is a gap with Boomers and Xers in some regards, but it doesn’t seem to create much tension.”

There have been some growing pains in the new approach, but nothing that has proven insurmountable. “Boomers definitely struggle with flexible work schedules,” Wilhelm acknowledges. And he notes that some managers on the team want to see the Millennials in the office more than anyone to promote getting ahead. But by and large, Millennials and Boomers truly don’t want such different things. 

After all, the 2017 Millennial Hiring Trends study from MRINetwork notes that Millennials put the compensation and benefits package as this generation’s first priority (28% of survey respondents)—and who isn’t looking for a healthy paycheck? 

And when you translate Millennials’ desire to work for firms that “do good” in committing to working for firms that focus on employee safety, sustainability, and giving back to their communities—what Boomer is arguing against those values? 

Finally, Millennials’ well-publicized desire for acclaim is typically a desire to receive regular feedback that they can apply toward real time job improvements. That MRINetwork study notes that mentorships are a major priority for Millennials (26% of survey respondents) but the savviest companies are making these mentorships two-way streets, where all generations can pick-up on their counterparts’ insights and special skills. 

This learning mentality is an approach that’s working for Shiel Sexton. “I learn a lot by working with multiple generations,” Wilhelm says. As he adds, “Diversity of generations in the workplace is a good thing.”


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