By Hannah Sabitoni, Laborers International Union of North America Health and Safety Fund
Lazy, entitled and technology-addicted are some of the adjectives you may see used to describe Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (1997 – 2012). Despite the stereotype that this group doesn’t want to work hard, they make up nearly half of the current workforce. As the “Great Resignation,” an unexpected surge in retirements and an aging workforce drive up demand for labor, employers need to find ways to appeal to and recruit these younger workers to stay afloat.
“From new infrastructure funding to plans to replace outdated lead pipe service lines, the construction industry is booming and won’t be slowing down anytime soon,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Young people are growing tired of spending thousands on a degree to graduate without any guarantee of a job and a career in construction offers an alternative to this path. LIUNA members get fulfilling careers, they get to work on meaningful projects and can build a better future for themselves and the country.”
The construction industry has been facing a worker shortage, and one projection estimates the industry will need 2.2 million more construction workers in the next three years to keep up with demand. At the same time, the overall economy is seeing masses of people quit their jobs in favor of gigs that pay more, offer better benefits packages, and provide a better quality of life. In other words, younger workers are tired of being underpaid and undervalued and are rethinking what they want – and how much they’ll tolerate – in a career.
In many ways, a career in construction seems like an obvious answer to the pleas of fleeing Millennials and Gen Zers: it provides a stable income without college debt and has a relatively low barrier to entry. LIUNA members and other union construction workers receive comprehensive training, phenomenal health and retirement benefits and career advancement opportunities. In addition, union construction workers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and advocacy on the job as well as safer work sites. For generations that value security, high wages and fulfilling work, this sounds like a match made in heaven. Yet a recent survey showed that only three percent of young people currently consider a construction career as an option.
Why the Disconnect?
Cultural factors and stigma surrounding the skilled trades are at least partially to blame for younger generations not yet thinking about construction as a career choice. Growing up, Millennials and Gen Zers were told the only way to make a living was to go to college and get a white-collar job. In this narrative, the skilled trades were meant for people looking for a backup plan. In contrast, older generations like Gen Xers and the Baby Boomers grew up seeing the successes of unions and blue-collar workers.
Gen Zers and Millennials are said to value openness, flexibility and independence at the workplace. They want to feel heard and valued by their employer for their unique perspectives. To those born before 1980, this can come off as entitled, opinionated or lazy. Conversely, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are said to work long hours and value self-reliance and practicality. On the flip side, younger workers may complain their older colleagues are rigid, close-minded and too traditional.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it’s rooted in stereotypes that aren’t necessarily true or helpful. Differing attitudes across generations are most often a product of circumstances, not age. For example, older Millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession and therefore place a higher value on job security than Gen Zers. Similarly, older Gen Zers entered the workforce in the midst of a pandemic and therefore prefer flexible work arrangements and digital communication.
Another potential reason for the disconnect is that construction is hard, physical work. A career in the skilled trades is demanding and, as with any other industry, comes with its own physical and mental health risks. But despite these risks, one report found that construction workers are among the happiest employees.
While younger generations want to feel satisfied and fulfilled in their everyday work, they also put a high premium on their health and safety. A lot of young workers aren’t willing to risk their health for the sake of a career. This is an opportunity for construction contractors to call attention to health & safety programs that address young people’s concerns and show they care about workers’ well-being.
How Can the Construction Industry Answer the Call?
The more that young people rack up thousands of dollars in student debt and barely make enough to cover their bills post-graduation, the more they question whether the college path is right for everyone. Younger workers are realizing they don’t have to follow the traditional 9-5 corporate lifestyle to achieve success, and researchers predict interest in the skilled trades will increase in the coming years. It’s now up to the employers to address young people’s concerns, show how trade work aligns with their values and adjust their recruiting strategy accordingly.
Millennials and Gen Z can be part of the change they want to see in the construction industry, including more open discussions about formerly taboo topics like mental health or social issues, prioritizing safety and health above a finish-at-any-cost mentality and breaking down the stigma surrounding these jobs. Meanwhile, employers and unions can work to better market apprenticeship programs, robust benefits packages and comprehensive health and safety plans. If there’s one lesson to draw from recent trends, it’s that workers are an employer’s biggest asset and should be treated as such.
Our economy is in a unique moment where five generations currently make up the workforce, so finding common ground and learning to adapt is the best way to attract and retain talent going forward.