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Labor Shortage: The New Workforce

Construction industry workers are multigenerational, multinational and motivated by new desires. Meeting their needs can help you compete.

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Photo courtesy of Decra Roofing Systems Inc.

During the labor shortage of the 1990s, much of the discussion surrounded how contractors could no longer rely on the 18- to 34-year-old white males who were the backbone of the industry. Since that time, we’ve seen the industry evolve into a multigenerational workforce with immigrant labor playing a significant role. Of all the changes seen in the industry over the last two decades—computer-aided design, BIM, energy efficiency, sustainability, new products—it may be the workforce that has undergone the most fundamental change.

The tools contractors used to rely on to manage that workforce have become obsolete. In fact, the desires and motivations of the new workforce are so different from what they had been, the whole model needs to be upended.

Contractors relying on old tools are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the highly competitive labor market. During the Metal Construction Industry Summit, April 12 in Chicago, many of the speakers addressed the new workforce and how to work with them.

Managing the Multigenerational Workforce

In today’s construction companies, we see multiple generations working together. At the long end are Baby Boomers, and just entering the workforce are Gen-Zs, the first of whom were born in the mid-‘90s, making them over 20 years old. In between lie Gen-Xers and Millennials. It is not unusual for all four of those age cohorts to be on the job site at the same time. Some may be highly knowledgeable superintendents and others just entry-level apprentices.

What’s important to know, though, is each of those generations has different touchstones and different motivations. Rick Lochner is president of RPC Leadership Associates, and he addressed the Metal Construction Industry Summit on the issues related to the multigenerational workforce.

"Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

Socrates, 1st century

Among Lochner’s insights to the generations are the following:

  • “Body language is important. Those who grew up with a screen in front of them struggle with body language.” That means Millennials and Gen- Zs will sometimes struggle to pick up the more nuanced aspects of communication that is second nature to Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.
  • “Gen-X brought the idea of explaining why into the workforce.” It’s not enough to just understand this is how things are done. You also have to answer the question of why and, if it doesn’t make sense, maybe now you can start down the path of a better way to do things.
  • “Millennials want ongoing feedback.” The Baby Boomer reliance on annual reviews works against the desire of Millennials for instant feedback. “They can course correct on the fly and not wait a whole year untill their annual review to get feedback on whether they’re doing it right,” says Lochner. “I’m getting feedback on how I’m doing. I’m engaged with the company.”

Engagement with the company and the job is an important issue for all workers, no matter what generation they are part of. Tongue in cheek, Lochner says, “71 percent of the workforce quits their job every day. Then they get into their car and drive to work. They’re physically there and mentally they’d rather be in the Bahamas.”

One of the best solutions to dealing with the multigenerational workforce is dual mentoring. “The mentor relationship is no longer the oldest mentoring the youngest,” says Lochner. “It’s the most experienced mentoring the least experienced. It no longer has anything to do with age.”

Photo courtesy of Harness Roofing Inc.

In other words, put the Baby Boomer who understands the best and most efficient way to install the roofing material with the Millennial who understands the best way to use technology to layout that material efficiently. Both workers play to their strengths. Both get a sense of self-worth and value for the company from their efforts. Both end up being loyal to the company.

Lochner does offer a warning about managing the multigenerational workforce. Just because an employee is in the Baby Boomer age group doesn’t mean he or she will act like a Baby Boomer. “Don’t assume how they’ll behave just because they’re of an age,” Lochner says. “Look at how they act and think. A lot of Millennials don’t have a Facebook account. In any workforce, it’s cognitive diversity that matters the most. I don’t care how much your workforce looks like the rainbow. If they don’t think differently, you’re not getting the benefit of diversity.”

There’s a deeper level of that understanding that gets to how people act within their jobs. The reality is people want to work for you for bigger reasons than just money. “Take time to understand motivations and learning styles,” Lochner says. “Why would they work for your company? There are companies out there who will give them a trajectory that is a motivation for growth. Money never hits higher than three on the top things that motivate someone to come to work. The top two traditionally are a challenging work environment and opportunities to grow. Those are the two that will get you the marquee players.”

In other words, regardless of the generation, if you can deliver a challenging work environment and opportunities for growth, you are more likely to retain the highest quality workers.

Managing Immigrants

Managing a multigenerational workforce is challenging, but even harder is developing and managing crews comprised of mostly immigrants. That’s the reality these days. It would be easier for contractors—and farmers and restaurant owners— to utilize native-born workers, but increasingly those jobs are the ones filled by immigrants. And in the construction industry, the dominant immigration population is Latino, whether from Mexico or Central America.

The most common issue is communication. It helps to have at least one member of a crew who is bilingual, but even that may not be enough. Industry veteran Chuck Howard, president of Metal Roof Consultants, Raleigh, N.C., says, “As an industry, we need to find those tools where we can teach workers how to speak. On cell phones there’s an app we are using. It takes a picture and it automatically goes up to the web. Anybody signed in to that can see that. You can take notes on the picture, you can draw arrows on it. I can check it and send it back to them and they can look at it on their cell phone.”

Howard also emphasizes the need to continue education with immigrants, many of who are undereducated. “We need to teach them math,” he says. “I’ve found people who don’t know how many square feet of insulation they put up today. The guy was a foreman for me, but he couldn’t do basic math. He couldn’t do square footage areas. Many can’t read drawings and don’t know what they are looking at. They’re looking at the lines and do not know what the words are and are trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do.”

But communication and education are only the first steps. Immigrants bring their own cultures to our country and their own expectations and biases. William Good, retired CEO of the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), was our keynote speaker at the summit. He says, “At NRCA, we worked with consultants on issues regarding Latino employees, addressing how to be more accepting. There were a couple of notable issues. Latinos have much greater brand loyalty than non-Latinos. If they find a company they like to work for, they’re going to tell their friends about it. The flipside is if they find a company they don’t like to work for, they’re going to tell people not to go anywhere near that company.”

Respect is also a valued attitude in Latino cultures. “The biggest reason for feeling disrespected,” says Good, “ is getting yelled at. We have a history of people getting yelled at in the construction industry. The number one reason Latinos left a company was disrespect.”

The final issue with immigrant populations is being sensitive to their cultural differences. “We had a company in Texas,” Good says, “that gave every employee a turkey for Thanksgiving. The immigrants weren’t interested in the turkey because it wasn’t something they ate, and the Thanksgiving celebration wasn’t a big part of their culture. So, the company started giving them $20 calling cards so they could call their mothers at home. The response to that simple change was remarkable.”

Photo courtesy of Liebherr-Werk Biberach

Training is Essential

One of the generational differences was best summed up by Todd Miller, president of Isiah Industries, Piqua, Ohio, manufacturers of residential metal roofing products, and one of the speakers at the summit. “Millennials want a career path to success,” he says.

That translates into training. Gary Smith, founder of Thomas Phoenix International, Eastampton, N.J., gave a presentation at the summit on training. “The new workforce has changed because the new workforce wants to be included in the plan,” he says. “Thirty years ago, we just gave them their instruction and they’d work. Now the typical worker wants to know what to do, how to do it and why they’re doing it. And you have to do that appropriately.

“Considering employees' perspectives is now more important than ever. We have to get these young people a reason to work for us. We have to give them leadership. We have to get them enthused. We have to get into their heads and change their work habits.

“Training certificates are tangible assets for your company and for your workers. The guys like those certificates and you make them work for it. They don’t get a free ribbon.

“Investing in workers’ continuing education pays dividends with improved safety, production and morale. I keep training them, but then they go work for someone else. Guess what? Get used to it. Because training is only the first step. The second step is maintaining and retaining those same people.”

You have to show workers a clear path for advancement: a career. That path for crews of metal building erectors, according to Tim Seyler, president of S&S Structures Inc., Blandon, Pa., is the AC 478 Accreditation, an independently verified standard of practice for metal building assembly. To achieve it, erectors need to have trained crews, and continuous training is baked into the accreditation.

Putting together training programs for your crews can feel like extra, unnecessary work for many contractors. The crew members learn on the job and having a formalized training process only seems to add work. Jackie Meiluta is a consultant to the Metal Building Contractors & Erectors Association (MBCEA) and was instrumental in the development of the AC 478 Accreditation. “This may sound daunting for those of you looking to develop training programs,” she says. “It’s not that hard. You know your stuff. There are lots of technical manuals out there. You know how to talk your workers. You just need to create some formality around it. Formality is required. Not only for the quality of the delivery, but also for the quality of the acceptance.”

But training benefits more than just your company, and the motivation comes not from achieving an accreditation, which helps differentiate you in the marketplace, it comes from your employees. Smith points out that you’re delivering one of the most important desires for employees, which is describing a path to advancement. “They want to know how you’re going to train them, when you’re going to train them, what they’re going to make, when they’re going to have an opportunity to make more. You have to talk about all this realistically and give them timelines. And give them goals.”

The bonus to delivering on that promise of advancement for employees is greater loyalty and higher retention. The best workers want to work for companies that are going to show them a career path, and contractors want the best workers.

Not only should the advancement timeline be obvious, Smith argues the communication should extend to wages. “Wages should be transparent,” he says. “You start at this rate. You do this, you get that. At the end of it, you get X. It should be transparent. None of this, ‘I think he’s making more money than me.’ If he’s making more money than you, there’s a reason for it.”

Training is essential for all crew members, but Good says we need to do more training with our foremen. “They are the keys to productivity and safety,” he says. “They can be keys to team building and how the rest of the crew gets along. We need to invest more in foreman training.”

Start at the Beginning

Developing the new workforce begins long before you start training them or sending them out to the job site. It begins at the hiring stage, and being able to identify quality workers will save the company considerable time and money.

Seyler says his company has done profiles of new applicants in the past and is implementing it again. “We did profile screening of new applicants and all current employees,” he says. “It ranks people cognitively, how well they can put things together, social skills, work attitude.”

Companies that do profiling often use their best workers as baselines so they can benchmark and match against them with new hires. Seyler is returning to the practice he moved away from during the construction downturn. “Over the last year, we have hired 30 to 40 people. Less than half are here today. It’s one of two situations. They didn’t come in regularly or get there early enough. We have an attendance policy that scores people on a lot of points and we lose people that way. The second was the inability to pass a drug test.”

Once you get the right employee over the threshold, you need to begin training. And if you hold off on training until an employee gets settled into the company, you are probably waiting too long. In fact, many of the people at the summit warned that the first day is an essential moment for developing the loyalty and retention that contractors need.

Good says, “We found people who enter the trade and on the first day on the job we put them on the roof. Nobody invests time in training them. What happens? The rest of the crew hazes them. They get duties picking up garbage, sweeping. Menial labor. Now, we’ve destroyed every reason they wanted to come work for you. We need to talk more about onboarding people. What that first day like? Everybody remembers his first day on the job.”

That first day experience is so important that Seyler asks for reports on it from his crew leaders. “I have a phrase we use all the time,” he says. “The guys who succeed are the ones who at the end of the first day look back over their shoulders and take pride in what they did. If the guy is slouching down in the back seat with his hoodie pulled over his head, I want to know because he’s probably not going to make it.”

The new workforce requires new handling, and whether it’s better communication, improved training or a great first day on the job, contractors need to establish processes that provide consistent results and not just hope it will all work out. In a tight labor market, hoping for the best will leave a company behind the competition.