Teenagers are construction’s biggest problem right now
When it comes to hiring the next generation of construction workers, the industry is on borrowed time. With the average age of its current employees at around 40 years old, a sizable chunk of the sector’s workforce will retire within the next two decades, replaced by a large cohort of Gen Z’ers to whom construction is just downright unappealing.
In many ways, the construction industry and Generation Z (those born after 1996) are idealistically polar opposites. The former suffers from a bad reputation of poor worker wellbeing and ‘macho’ culture where the latter has been brought up scoffing at gender norms and with a stark understanding on the effects of mental health.
Add on the fact that Gen Z are the first ‘digital natives’ – whose upbringing was radically shaped by swift technological expansion – and you have a group that is diametrically opposed to a sector which is also known for its sluggish speed of innovation.
When combined with a crippling skills shortage in the wake of a global pandemic, construction’s youth-hiring dilemma is clear, so what can be done?
Money, money, money
To answer that question is to first realise that it isn’t as black and white as ‘the construction industry is bad for young people’; wider society and the economic powers within it have also entrenched ideals and attitudes into those which live within it.
In their relatively short lifetimes, Gen Z have witnessed skyrocketing university prices, a laughably unattainable housing ladder, and two major economic crashes. Economic volatility is the ever-present anxiety that lingers on the shoulders of today’s young people, meaning that some semblance of financial stability is at the top of their priorities for long term employment prospects.
However, ‘stability’ regarding money doesn’t start and end with a decent salary – though the industry could do worse than to point out its higher-than-average salary of £42,500. For young people starting out in any job, a clearly defined pay structure and benefits package is one step towards understanding whether they’re going to stick around for the long run.
Stability, at any stage in a career, comes from knowing the opportunities for advancement, both financially and internally within the company. This can be especially done for any offsite, technical roles, but can the same be said for a company’s onsite work?
Clearly define the paths that younger employees can take within the sometimes more intimidating environment of onsite construction. Can they explore different facets of a project? Training and pathways to qualifications that can lead to them doing so should be made clear from the beginning. Young people want to know that there is a path for them to take that will result in a fair and decent wage but will also provide a higher quality of life.
‘What’s the point?’
Meaning and purpose are essential to most anyone who walks into an interview room but more so with younger people whose whole life is still ahead of them, whose mentors can shape their views and attitudes to the world of work, and who realise that career and contentment can exist in harmony outside of the societal function of ‘making a living’.
70% of Gen Z workers consider a company’s purpose and values second only to salary, meaning that it is construction’s duty (if not to their workers, to themselves) to highlight the values that it holds, the contribution it wishes to make, and the legacy it wants to leave behind.
It may surprise some to know that construction is seen to many young people as a ‘dirty’ industry, where its physical interaction with the natural world conjures images of grey mud, sloppy cement and rain-soaked boots, a far cry from their cosy world of clean software design and 4K displays.
And yet, it is in the finished product where the beauty of construction lies. Where architectural creativity and engineering innovation come together as a proud creation that stands tall and shares the physical world alongside us.
It is up to the industry to shine a spotlight on this, to show young creatives that although the work is challenging, there is opportunity to be a part of something that they can be truly proud to have contributed to.
The sector’s responsibilities don’t end there. As everyone within it knows, construction is a major contributor towards global emissions, and having been brought up in a changing climate that threatens aspects of their future, young people are increasingly looking to companies that align with their values of environmental stewardship.
Three quarters of Gen Z respondents for a 2018 Deloitte survey indicated that they consider a company’s social and environmental commitments in deciding where to work, with two thirds going so far as to say that they would not accept a job that didn’t have a strong sustainability programme.
It’s clear they want to be reassured that the firms they’re working with are thinking long-term about not just the health of their company but of the environment around them. Net zero carbon goals that signal this kind of long-term thinking are popular amongst construction companies of all sizes, from optimising supply chains to reducing emissions across the scope of works.
Sustainability can even mean a simple replacement of paper-based systems with digital solutions and updating your business operations to create less waste.
As it goes, digitalisation is also one of construction’s biggest hurdles, partly due to an ever-changing technological landscape, but largely because of the increasing volume of people who expect this technology to be utilised as standard.
Gen Z are the first digital natives, the generation whose experience of the internet included no blood-curdling dial up tones, hour-long loading times, and ugly web design – with two decades of technological advancement behind them, digital means have streamlined and connected everyone’s lives, yet this is all Gen Z really know.
Compared to construction’s seemingly stubborn adoration of analogue equipment, you have a sector that was once dangerously at risk of falling by the technological wayside.
Keen eyes have spotted this slow rate of innovation within the industry, sparking the first flames of a much-needed digital construction revolution, but this must continue to spread if its future workers – with wider digital skills than any other generation – are to consider construction as a viable career in line with their skillset.
Some technologies are already well-established within the sector. Building information modelling (BIM), for example, has turned development planning on its head, stretching it from a once 2D, paper-based process to a digital, three-dimensional facsimile that allows developers to explore a building’s characteristics more thoroughly for the sake of management and design.
Other technologies, such as drones, are still in relative infancy but are transforming the construction landscape, nonetheless. Drones’ one-two punch of lightweight controls and sophisticated camera technology has welcomed them into the industry as a means of surveying inaccessible land, enhancing site security, and even transporting goods.
There is a notable holdup in their wholesale uptake, however. The training and compliance required just to operate drones can be a major obstacle for many established construction workers who are either disinterested in or confused by the technology altogether.
The opportunity here, then, is to approach young people who are already more aware of fledgling tech like drones and provide them with the training and qualifications needed to operate them. Compared to their older colleagues, this will be seen as an important skill to harness rather than another tool in an otherwise bloated belt of skills accrued over the decades.
Generation Z, like many before them, just want the same benefits as any determined person seeks from their careers – stability, fulfilment, purpose – what are these if not human traits, after all? The danger, however, comes not from ignoring this, but from ignoring the ever-changing world that surrounds it all – the technology, the potential, the alternative avenues. Construction needs to keep one eye firmly on the future if it is to ever meet the needs of its inhabitants, old and young.
Originally published in Design & Build UK construction magazine