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The Aging Workforce: How to Recruit and Retain the Next Generation of Construction Workers

Articles - Dec 18

The Aging Workforce: How to Recruit and Retain the Next Generation of Construction Workers

JLG Industries, Inc.
World-leading access equipment manufacturer
McConnellsburg, PA

In May 2018, the U.S. recorded the lowest unemployment rate since 2000 at just 3.8%. For many, this is an indication that the economy has taken a turn for the better. A declining unemployment rate brings positive changes, like giving more buying power to consumers and reducing government borrowing. But, it can also create a shortage of workers.


That’s exactly what’s happening in the construction industry today. Though several districts in the U.S. have noted a need for more construction and manufacturing employees, companies within these two sectors can’t fill open positions. It’s a problem at every level of the industry, from technical school scholarships going unclaimed to established companies turning down jobs because they don’t have the manpower to complete them.


The Growing Labor Shortage

The most regularly cited reason for the construction labor shortage is that baby boomers are retiring amidst a strong economy. As of 2017, the median age of construction industry employees was 42.6, meaning many will hang up their hard hats for good in upcoming years.

But even more concerning than the mass exodus of aging workers is the lack of young, skilled workers to take their place. In recent years, there’s been a clear decline in the number of Americans in the labor force, and the decline is even sharper among young men. Everything from video games to lack of opportunities to automation and outsourcing has been blamed for the rapid decline in male workers actively seeking employment. And though many companies are now recruiting women to fill the gap in construction, a labor shortage remains. Of the roughly 10.7 million workers in construction, only about 1 million are 16 to 24 years old, compared to the 4.7 million who are 45 and older.

A shift in education also makes young workers hard to find. Across the country, shop classes have been cut and all students, regardless of natural skills and abilities, are encouraged to pursue college. Students simply aren’t aware that they can make a decent living with full benefits and growth potential in construction.

Negative stigmas also undermine attempts to recruit younger generations into construction jobs. When the housing industry collapsed in 2008, the construction industry saw a 13.7% decrease in employment, which sent the message that construction was an insecure line of work with few growth opportunities. In the minds of young Americans, job sites are dirty, dangerous places that send you home sunburned, callused and sore—or worse. It’s important to highlight the positive aspects of working in construction, like continuous learning opportunities and freedom from the typical “desk job.”

David Vater, a project manager at JE Dunn Construction and 26-year-old member of the Millennial generation, points out, “One misconception young people have about working in construction is that supervisors will constantly yell and give orders, when, in reality, it’s more about collaboration now. We have meetings to bring everyone together to share their input. And, there are opportunities for all kinds of work—from roles like field supervision and trade labor that require you to spend 100% of your time on the job site to positions in project management where you may split your time between the field and office.”


The Rise of Millennials and Generation Z

Aging Workforce Infographic

By 2019, Millennials and Generation Z together will make up the largest population cohort in the U.S., which means understanding their perspectives and motivations is of utmost importance. Not only are they the next generation of employees—they’re also your future customers, buyers and partners.



Millennials are the generation born between 1981 and 1996. As of 2016, they became the largest generation in the workforce, making up more than 1/3 of current working adults. This group, who came of age at the height of the Great Recession, has been widely discussed—from how to market to them to how to manage them.

1. Technology-Focused

Millennials grew up when computers and cell phones saw a meteoric rise in sales and usage. According to a 2015 survey, their combined desktop computer and smartphone usage accounts for an average of 31.2 hours per week. They appreciate technologies that make their jobs easier and more efficient, freeing them up to focus on other things.

2. Desire for Balance

Though Millennials have been criticized as an “entitled” generation, many are willing to trade higher pay for more flexible schedules and other benefits. They value work/life balance and prefer to separate their work and home lives. That said, when given opportunities they’re passionate about, most Millennials will work hard to produce work that exceeds expectations.

3. Collaborative

Millennials value teamwork above nearly every other aspect of their work environment, which makes them assets when it comes to planning and communicating about projects. They’re quick to lend a hand and often seek input and affirmation from others. They struggle in environments with commanding, do-as-I-say leaders because they believe everyone has a valuable opinion that should be respected. They look for superiors who treat them as equals while maintaining the appropriate level of authority.

4. Attention-Seeking

Members of the Millennial generation want to be recognized for their accomplishments, which doesn’t always mean promotions or pay raises. Sometimes, verbal praise or getting to leave a few hours early is just as effective. They desire feedback and guidance and dislike being surprised with broad company changes. The more you can do to make this generation feel “in the loop,” the more success you’ll have in retaining them.


Generation Z

Generation Z is the generation born in 1997 through present day. Although Millennials have been the center of attention in recent workplace-focused articles, members of Generation Z are just beginning to graduate and emerge into the labor force.

1. Digital Natives

Members of Gen Z are considered the first true “digital natives,” a phrase invented by author Marc Prensky in 2001 that refers to those who grew up in a world already entrenched in technology. They don’t remember a time when smartphones didn’t exist because they were 10 years old or younger when Apple launched the first iPhone. Thus, they are very focused on mobile devices and do most of their reading, shopping and communicating via technology.

2. Emphasis on the Visual


Generation Z is full of visual learners and communicators. A recent study shows that they prefer visual social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat over Facebook and Twitter. Video also has incredible influence over this generation. The majority noted YouTube as their favorite website, and 70% said they watch at least two hours of videos per day on the platform.


3. Obsessed With Gamification

Why just complete a task when you can win at a task? More than any other generation, Gen Z is ad- and marketing-savvy enough to know when they’re being targeted. So, to reach and engage this generation, you not only need to create great products, you need to create great experiences—whether that’s with a traditional product, a service or as an employee at your company. Check out this example of a gamified recruiting video by Deloitte.

4. Global-Focused­­­

As technology connects us to one another, the world grows smaller. Generation Z is aware of what’s going on in the world in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined. They’re interested in and sensitive to other cultures, which makes them empathetic employees who seek a purpose-driven career.


What Younger Generations Want from a Job

So, now that we know what’s meant by “younger” generations, the most important question to ask is, “What do Millennials and Generation Z want out of a job?” With their tendency toward boredom and their propensity for job-hopping, it may seem like attracting and maintaining younger talent is an uphill battle not worth fighting.

However, when their specific needs are met, they can be enthusiastic, productive employees. A recent study asked Millennials and Gen Zers what was most important to them when accepting their first job. It found that, above everything else, they’re looking for fulfilling work and opportunities for growth.

That same study asked them to rank their biggest concerns about job hunting. It found that 32% (the majority) were most concerned with finding a job, while 16% said they were most concerned with the cost of education. And, when asked to rank their top aspirations, 69% ranked financial stability in their top three and 62% ranked securing their dream job in their top three.


How Construction Sector Jobs Can Fulfill the Needs of Younger Generations

The construction industry has a range of career paths that afford Millennials and Generation Z the fulfilling work and career growth they crave.

1. Plenty of Jobs

One of the top concerns of younger generations is being able to find a job—period—which isn’t surprising, considering most of them came of age at the height of the 2008 recession. The good news is that between now and 2024, the construction sector is projected to add 790,400 jobs and to be the fastest growing segment of all goods-producing sectors in the U.S. For equipment operators, specifically, the outlook is just as positive. From 2016-2026, employment of equipment operators is projected to grow 12%, faster than the average for all occupations.

2. Less Investment in Schooling

Another concern of Millennials and Gen Z is the cost of higher education. Many jobs in the construction industry only require a high school diploma, though there are advanced degrees in fields like construction management, construction technology and construction engineering. But most construction workers learn how to do their jobs through paid on-the-job training or apprenticeships, which pair a new employee up with an experienced operator. This offsets the cost of traditional education and allows operators to earn a decent living without first going into debt.

3. Constant Learning

As in many fields, technology and techniques are constantly changing in the construction industry. Construction jobs offer a lot of variety at a fast pace for those willing to work hard. Challenging young workers to learn new ways to do their job not only makes them more effective, but it also engages their natural curiosity.

4. Technology-Rich Environment

There’s a misconception that construction environments are dirty, dangerous and outdated. However, younger generations’ technology skills can be an asset when dealing with newer equipment and computerized controls. Many construction jobs require more technical skills than young workers realize, especially with drones, wearables and other technologies on the rise.

Vater describes the tremendous impact of technology with an example about BIM, or building information modeling, “We manage projects in BIM 360. When a project is in the punch phase, one of our project engineers walks around the site with the architect, and they note any quality issues on an iPad. They take pictures, describe the issue and send the information to our vendors. The vendors are immediately notified, and it goes through a similar process when the issue is fixed to allow us to verify the update was made.”

To attract young workers, make prospects aware of the important technologies your company relies on every day to be successful.

5. Opportunities for Salary and Career Growth

With older workers retiring, younger workers have plenty of gaps to fill. Unfortunately, salaries and career paths within the construction industry aren’t widely publicized. Median pay for an equipment operator, for example, is about $46,080 annually in the U.S. This is right in the middle compared to the salaries of other jobs that require at least a high school diploma in industries growing faster than average, such as medical secretaries ($34,610 median annual salary) and plumbers ($52,590 median annual salary).

Relationships are also extremely important as young workers step into the shoes of those who’ve been in the industry for years. Mentors have a chance to share their knowledge, while mentees can ask for guidance and feedback from a trusted source. When explaining how he came to hold his current role, Vater says, “I was inspired by a really solid leader. He had tremendous control over the outcome of a project, and he was able to achieve that at a young age. That, to me, made having a leadership role in this industry look very achievable.”


How to Recruit Millennials and Generation Z into Construction Jobs

It’s clear the construction industry has plenty to offer both well-established Millennials and the working newcomers of Generation Z. The challenge is capturing their attention in a healthy, competitive job market.

1. Start Younger

Many companies make it a priority to attend job fairs for students graduating from college or technical school. But, by then, most have already selected a career path. Instead, try speaking to elementary school classes. Host high school students at your job site. Evidence shows that 75% of today’s teens want to convert hobbies to full-time jobs, but, with shop classes being cut and secondary schools pushing college for everyone, it’s no wonder students don’t see construction and trades as a viable career—usually, they don’t know anything about the field.

2. Showcase Learning Opportunities

The construction industry is rich with teachable moments, so it’s important to explain the training and learning opportunities that go along with any job you advertise—and that includes paid training, tuition reimbursement and scholarships. According to one BUILDER Online article, some technical schools have seen thousands of dollars in scholarships go untouched. It’s hard to fathom unclaimed scholarship money when the total student loan debt in the U.S. exceeds $1.5 trillion. Transferrable skills can also attract younger workers to your company. The reality is that most Millennials and Gen Zers switch jobs frequently, and they want to know what skills they’ll take to future jobs.

3. Value Them from the Beginning

At this point in the 21st Century, we’re all used to instantaneous communication. So why, when applying to jobs, does it take weeks or months to get a response (if you ever do)? The quickest way to lose your young audience is to be unresponsive.

According to Vater, one of the biggest differences between older generations and his generation is the speed at which they expect results: “We transfer information very quickly. I’m used to receiving 60 to 70 emails a day, constantly answering texts and my phone ringing off the hook. That’s how I live my life, and that translates into me wanting information and answers more quickly. If I expected something an hour ago and still don’t have it, it’s easy to become impatient.”

Respond to applicants to let them know their materials were received—even if it’s an automated email. After you’ve interviewed someone, follow up to let them know next steps—even if that next step is continuing to interview for another two weeks before selecting a candidate.

While an interview should focus on what candidates will bring to your company, it’s also important to share why someone with their talents would want to work for you. An interview works both ways—while you’re evaluating candidates, they’re evaluating you. And, to that end, don’t require candidates to fill out extensive skills tests and personality assessments before you’ve even talked to them. If Millennials and Generation Z feel like they’re being reduced to a number on a chart, they’re likely to walk away before finishing the application.

4. Be Transparent

As stated above, Millennials and Generation Z know when they’re being targeted. So, when advertising jobs, it’s important to be authentic. Showcase real employees. Back up what you’re saying with stories. For example, if you say there’s a focus on community service at your organization, create videos that show your employees volunteering and interview the people who benefit from the work. Follow the adage of “show, don’t tell.” Younger generations have mountains of information at their fingertips, making them aware of a company’s reputation long before they’re hired.

The same rule applies when it comes to salaries. Don’t make an applicant go through four rounds of interviews before sharing salary and benefits information with them. In the end, providing a salary range and overview of benefits up-front saves time for both companies and applicants by allowing candidates to apply only for jobs that offer packages that fit their expectations.

5. Meet Them Where They Are

Many companies make the mistake of advertising their careers in one place—the fine print in the footer of their website. This practice relies on candidates actively seeking out your company and finding the careers page, which might work if you’re large and established but will yield poor results for smaller companies. Consider advertising with paid search or on social platforms. 60% of users discover products on Instagram, and Instagram itself notes that 80% of users follow a business. Imagine if you leveraged those numbers and used them to attract potential candidates.

Vater notes that he did a lot of research about companies that interested him. “Glassdoor is a great resource because it lets you look at salaries across the industry. But, the best research you can possibly do is on foot. I reached out to a project manager at JE Dunn to see if they would host me at a job site. That allowed me to meet everyone and get a feel for the company before I started working here,” he says.

Consider holding an open house or hiring day where prospects can experience your company firsthand. Offer interviews to people who are interested. And don’t forget to publicize the event using the same channels mentioned above.

6. Leverage Technology

Attract younger generations with up-to-date technology. Nearly 31% of Millennials and Generation Z use online job boards to find jobs, which means it’s time to create profiles, update old ones and do away with applicant tracking systems from the early 90s. Make it as easy as possible to apply because young prospects are likely to be turned off if they get a negative first impression of your website.

Want to be even more cutting edge? Try interviewing via text. Maybe use virtual reality to show young recruits what a day at the job site or in a boom lift platform is like.


Retaining Millennial and Generation Z Employees

Low employee retention shouldn’t be taken lightly. On average, the cost of replacing an employee is about 21% of their salary, a number that can grow exponentially if there is constant turnover. Job hopping aside, there are some steps you can take to retain young employees once you recruit them.

1. Define Your Values

Millennials and Generation Z cited fulfilling work as one of their biggest career drivers. And one thing that makes work fulfilling is performing it alongside peers and for a company that share values you want to stand behind. Everyone—from top level management to interns—needs to buy into your company values and personify them. If safety is your most important value, reward employees who go the extra mile to keep themselves and others safe. If professionalism is important to you, reward workers who take pride in the appearance of their equipment and uniform. Make employees feel appreciated for going above and beyond what’s expected, and they’ll reward you with productivity and drive.

2. Encourage an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Empower young workers to share ideas and make decisions. But, on the flip side, stress accountability and ownership. “Most people my age look for opportunities to make a difference right off the bat,” says Vater. “We want jobs leading, inspiring change and being effective in our current roles so we have the opportunity to advance into even bigger roles.”

When people throughout the organization can embrace failure as a learning opportunity, the quality of work goes up. The employees performing the work know it best, and when they feel comfortable, heard and respected—even if their suggestion isn’t implemented—they’re more willing to propose creative solutions in the future.

3. Focus on the Individual

“Be yourself” is a pervasive mantra for today’s youth, so it’s no surprise that Millennials and Gen Zers seek jobs that let them express themselves freely. Obviously, a hard hat and other PPE may be required to perform the job safely, but are there other areas where more freedom could be afforded? Find what motivates individual workers and tailor growth and development plans to them.

“The one thing that would drive a Millennial to leave a company would be to limit their potential,” says Vater. “We do not want to feel trapped within our current role. Goals need to be attainable. Repeatedly tasking someone with repetitive work and offering no opportunity to grow can drive attrition.”

Focusing on the individual also means focusing on milestones like birthdays and hiring anniversaries. Celebrate these occasions, as employees are most likely to change jobs at the one-year mark and subsequent anniversaries. And, when possible, provide flexible scheduling that shows workers you understand they have a life beyond the job site. Treat employees like adults and valued partners, then expect the same in return.

4. Emphasize Purpose

Show employees the impact of their work. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day tasks of the job, so remind workers—especially young workers—that you’re building a hospital or school for people in need. Or maybe you’re building a high-rise that will house a company bringing thousands of jobs to your city. Whatever the job, your managers need to be skilled at creating big-picture buy-in from all employees.


You most likely already have the tools to recruit and retain young workers. But attracting Millennial and Generation Z will require a shift in attitude and advertising. With strategic planning, you can leverage the strong outlook and emerging technologies within the field of construction to better market the benefits to younger generations.

“Largely, the construction industry is an aging workforce,” concludes Vater. “Every day I encounter challenges where I want to react differently or take a different approach than my older counterparts in the industry. That said, we find ways to play on each other’s strengths. Approaching members of previous generations with respect for their knowledge and value to a project goes a long way, and it helps bridge the gap between generations.”


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