Recruiting Young Construction Workers

The Graying Workforce: Contractors Work to Cultivate a New Generation of Workers

The industry is notoriously older, so construction companies are testing newer strategies to attract and retain the future workforce

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The aging of the construction workforce has been well documented. To counter this trend, construction companies are going to great lengths to recruit and retain younger workers. What can construction companies do to ensure these workers are successful in the workplace and mesh with workers of other generations?

Integrating new generations into the workplace isn’t a new challenge, but construction in recent years has had its share of headwinds. Trades careers haven’t traditionally been compelling for young people, many of whom opt to attend a four-year college or university instead. The industry may not appear as lucrative as careers in technology or finance. And the culture of working on a construction jobsite hasn’t proven great in terms of worker mental health and general well-being.

“Competing for and retaining talent has changed over the last 10 years,” said Nicole Patel, chief people officer at RNGD. The mid-size firm headquartered in New Orleans specializes in commercial building, infrastructure and industrialized construction and serves the Gulf Coast.

“Younger, less-experienced employees are hungrier for rapid growth and meaningful impact,” Patel said.

Such hunger is an opportunity—and a challenge—for employers.

Day One Mentorship

To foster the growth of younger, less experienced employees, RNGD developed Renegade Academy, a series of workshops that help develop the next generation of construction professionals. In the past, employees would go through the academy after being with the company for 12 to 24 months. “Now, new employees ask about it on day one,” Patel said.

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They ask because they’re eager to improve.

“Understanding their desire to learn and grow quickly gives us the opportunity to unlock their full potential through coaching, development plans, training and giving them challenging work to expedite their experience,” Patel said.

McCarthy Building Cos., the St. Louis-based national employee-owned general contractor, places great emphasis on the employee-manager connection. “We want our employees to think about, ‘Do I feel a connection with my manager so that we’re aligned on my goals and how I can develop,’” said Lindsay Wilson, the company’s vice president of human resources.

“This motivates employees who are interested in growth and a recognition that not everyone follows the same path—it’s a jungle gym approach,” she added.

Learn Differently

Many older, more experienced workers learned the trades from family members, grew up on jobsites or learned on the job. The new generation seeks out apprenticeships because they want to learn and see them as a means to an end.

“They don’t want to stagnate and do one thing,” Wilson said. “They’re driven, want exposure and, ultimately, promotional opportunities.”

“We lean into their ability and love of learning while also giving them the support they need to thrive,” Patel said.

One of the ways they learn quickly is through technology. As digital natives, the younger generation consistently looks to technology to increase efficiency. Their willingness to learn new technology helps them make up for their lack of experience.

Moderate Expectations

It can be challenging to retain younger employees who are eager to learn, grow their skills and be promoted. Add another element to the equation and things get trickier.

Worker shortages have left companies vying for talent. Hiring and maintaining talent is a challenge for all companies, but it carries a greater impact on small to mid-size companies. This can create a dilemma for employers: promote employees or risk losing them.

“It’s an era of immediate satisfaction, so we have to coach our employees about expectations,” Patel said. She and her team strive to empower employees by offering growth opportunities while simultaneously setting realistic goals. “Sometimes this requires hard, honest conversations and making sure employees know their employer has their best interest at heart.”

Personal development is very individualized at McCarthy. “Individual focus has been a best practice that our young employees appreciate,” Wilson said. “It feels more genuine to them—and impactful.”

Part of the Culture

“As a 100% employee-owned company, we’ve created a culture of development,” Wilson continues. “We expect everyone to develop the people around them, so in the end, we’re all successful.”

In fact, employees are encouraged to develop their replacement. “Because one generation pours knowledge into the next generation, our younger people get experience faster and know they have someone willing to invest in them.” The knowledge transfer also ensures continuity and success.

To make this atypical process work, McCarthy emphasizes cultural fit in the interview process, and the company believes it sets them apart. Attrition is low.

The emphasis on “all in” at McCarthy also simplifies the challenges related to meshing a diverse workforce. “Our approach to building team culture mitigates the challenges of having different generations working alongside each other,” Wilson says.

RNGD strives to mesh the generations by creating an empathetic, inclusive environment. It forges this environment by having each employee recognize that no job is too small, honoring promises and building relationships.

“We recognize that soft skills are as important as technical skills, which is why we make sure to foster a social and inclusive environment that integrates all teams and generations of workers as much as possible,” Patel said. “This not only fosters development, but also creates a culture where everyone feels valued and empowered to succeed.”

The workforce challenge of integrating new generations isn’t new. Ensuring new, less experienced employees are in sync with older, more experienced employees, and that workplaces are new-employee-friendly, is particularly important in construction. Giving new employees learning opportunities, a path forward and mentors goes a long way toward retention. Creating a culture of respect, development and social opportunities encourages employees of all generations to work well together.

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