Getting it Right with Millennials

The construction industry missed out when it came to Generation X, but cannot do so with the Millennial Generation. Through no fault of the industry, Gen X – born from 1965 to 1981 and currently 31 to 47 years of age – has not embraced construction as a career in the same percentages that prior generations did. Why?

Gen X children arrived on this planet just as their parents were divorcing in unprecedented numbers. And back then, divorce courts were granting child custody almost exclusively to the moms, not the dads. And so a large percentage – about 40 percent – of Gen X got to see Dad only “every other weekend,” if that.Unlike Boomer kids, whose fathers were building or fixing something around the house every weekend while working with their hands Monday through Friday in America’s manufacturing and construction economy, Gen X kids did not come of age learning the thrill and sense of accomplishment of manual labor. And divorced Dad wasn’t around to teach his children how to use a hammer, screwdriver or other tools.

The parents of Gen X also were the first American parents to benefit from The Women’s Movement, which finally opened legitimate career doors to females. Suddenly, parents were time-starved but generating greater household income. The result? Instead of Dad doing the work himself while his kid hung around, watched, “helped” and learned, Dad hired out the plumbing and electrical repairs. Instead of changing the car oil in the driveway, he took it to Jiffy Lube.

Another spinoff of parents’ career-driven workaholism and absentee parenting was Gen X kids coming of age molding a powerful core value of “when I become a parent I’m gonna be there for my kid.” So this generation has tended to avoid careers that require long, irregular, evening or weekend hours such as retail, healthcare and construction.

And finally, the tsunami known as video gaming – which began in 1972 when the oldest X’ers were seven – swept young boys into video arcades or onto the bedroom floor for hours at a time. Instead of playing outdoors after school, after dinner, and on the weekends, Gen X boys embraced the “safe,” perspiration-free, dirt-free, no-tools-required world of gaming.

From all of these formative years’ times and teachings, a career in construction became unappealing to many of them.

Millennials Defined

Now come the Millennials. Generational study is not trustworthy until a person gets out of high school at about age 18. So, what is likely to be the older half or “First Wave” of the Millennial Generation is the age group born from 1982 to 1994 and currently aged 18 to 30.

Gen X had come of age as the computer generation. Millennials are the technology generation, overwhelmed by the tech revolution with which they grew up. Just like Gen X, they’re not outdoors playing and working up a sweat and tinkering with manual labor.

There’s a high divorce rate by their parents, too. But child custody has changed since Gen X’s youth, and fathers are a more regular presence in the lives of their Millennial kids.

Millennials have been serial job-hoppers thus far in their careers. They’re using their first decade of adulthood to sample different occupations and employers and perhaps have a little fun before settling in for the long haul, and are postponing the serious commitments of career, marriage and parenthood.

At my training workshops across all industries, I hear that Millennials – as a generation – do not have a positive reputation with employers. I routinely ask audiences of managers and executives to shout out the workplace strengths of this generation of employees. In one loud chorus, they say “technology!” Great, I say. What else? The room goes silent.

But The Great Recession has probably been the kick in the gut this generation needed, because – are you ready for this? – Millennials are going to be a great career generation.

Whenever they kick in, and they will soon, they will want to use their careers to make the world a better place, not merely to get a paycheck. They’re idealistic, empowered, engaged in the democracy, patriotic, compassionate and team players. Sound familiar, Boomers? And yes, they’ll be willing to work hard.

Training and Development Strategies

So, what are the key strategies necessary to ensure that the construction industry succeeds with Millennials? To state the obvious, provide training to all executive and supervisory personnel in a half- or full-day generational workforce management and leadership strategy session.

When recruiting Millennials, emphasize the “greater contribution” your company and industry make to American life, give them access to senior management and give them some time with a current Millennial employee. Also, discuss possible departmental or task rotations to offer as much variety as possible, listen to them and learn what’s important to them in life, not just career; discuss detailed career paths, and assure them they’ll receive lots of guidance, because they were the most nurtured, coddled kids in American history by their “helicopter parents.”

To get Millennials on board, assign them a connection coach – an employee who is close to their age and stays in touch with them from the moment they commit until they’ve been on the job a few months. Ask yourself how you can make their first day on the job unforgettable instead of dry and boring, and give them access to senior management during the critical first few days and weeks.

As soon as they’re settled, assign them a mentor; provide ongoing, high-quality training; give them a stake in your company’s outcome by encouraging their ideas and questions; provide constant feedback and be specific. Criticize them with kid gloves because during their childhood, their parents convinced them they are the “center of the universe.” Again, consider rotations through various jobs to find the one that will best connect with them.

Because of Gen X and Millennial indifference – or aversion – to construction careers, with the exception of tech-related positions, construction must be more strategic and more knowledgeable about generational dynamics in order to nail it with Millennials. Knowledge in generational workforce management and leadership strategy will help.

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