by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL
As we wring our hands over the difficulty of attracting young people into construction we need to ask ourselves: If we had grown up in their world would WE want to work in this industry?
The same forces that will shape the future of our industry offer opportunities for us to attract young people into its workforce. As the Dad of both a Millennial daughter and a Gen Z daughter I've observed in my daughters and their friends some of the traits that plug directly into both the disruptive change that is needed in construction, and in the key to making construction resonate with young people.
The two words that come to mind are collaboration and communication. Throw in a third word: Technology. What our industry has, and more important, what our industry NEEDS going forward plays directly into their sweet spots. This is particularly true of Gen Z, sometimes known as "Digital Natives" because they have never known a world without computers.
I was reading an article on Techonomy, a technology website, titled "Disrupting Concrete With Code." The article addresses using technology to improve productivity and collaboration. It was written by Tracy Young, CEO of PlanGrid, a San Francisco-based electronic data integration platform that allows construction team members to share drawings, submittals, RFIs, etc.
In it she mentions McKinsey & Company reports addressing the current and future state of construction. In reading her article and drilling down into Young's source material I was struck by several issues which appear to directly impact the future of our industry and our ability to attract young people to construction careers.
One McKinsey report, "Imagining Construction's Digital Future" speaks to technologies that are already being adopted and have the potential to radically improve collaboration, communication and productivity. These are hi-def surveying and geolocation; next generation hi-def geolocation; 5-D BIM modeling; digital collaboration and mobility; intelligent asset management and decision making; and designing with materials and methods of the future. Currently, construction lags almost all other industries in investment in technology.
This is nothing new: We were among the last of industries to use fax machines and we are among the last of industries to STILL use fax machines. That is changing, as the more astute and deep-pocketed companies see technology as a solution to addressing gaps in productivity and manpower. It also arguably increases our "coolness" factor with young people.
In January 1983, the Business Roundtable's Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness Project Published a report "More Construction for the Money." That report was a summary of 23 reports with 223 recommendations addressing the need for collaboration in the industry to improve productivity. "Productivity and Responsibility will Increase Development and Employment" were the words behind the acronym PRIDE, the St. Louis organization founded a decade earlier, shortly after the founding of the Business Roundtable.
So how much progress have we made in the productivity arena in three decades? McKinsey reports in "Reinventing Construction: a Route to Higher Productivity" that, "Construction is a key industry in countries across the world, but one that has struggled to evolve its approaches as other industries have done, and one whose productivity has suffered as a result. Even while other sectors from retail to manufacturing have transformed their efficiency, boosted their productivity, and embraced the digital age, construction appears to be stuck in a time warp."
To change the situation McKinsey argues for — among other things — more transparency in relationships, rethinking processes, infusing digital technology, and reskilling the workforce. Ignoring the caustic critiques of kids who can't read a tape measure, we should recognize the native skillsets of young people who were born with their fingers glued to keyboards, who value relationships above all, and who might be just what we need to jumpstart a sea of change in our industry. But we need to let them know that construction is exciting and mentally challenging and stimulating — not a last resort that pays more than working shifts as a barista.
With massive numbers of Boomers retiring from construction in the next few years, attraction of a younger generation to the industry, the transfer of knowledge to those workers, and embracing technologies that can radically boost construction productivity and profitability seems to me like a natural challenge for the relational, digitally adept middle schoolers and high school students who will be entering the workforce in a very few years.