By Laura Cataldo, senior manager, Baker Tilly
Many construction companies that are struggling to hire younger talent say the same thing: “Today’s younger generation just doesn’t want to work hard.” While it is true that many high school-age students are not as physically active as previous generations were, saying they don’t like to work hard may be a little harsh.
Some construction jobs are quite physical and only appeal to a certain segment of the workforce. But many other positions, including equipment operators, have the potential of appealing to a much larger pool of candidates — including the youngest of workers.
Who is Gen Z and What Do They Want?
There is a lot of talk about the millennial generation. There is not enough talk about Generation Z.
In 2019, millennials ranged in age from 23-38. Companies that emphasize this demographic in their recruitment efforts are often disappointed with the results. One reason why is that due to the age of millennials, it is often too late to inspire them to pursue a career in construction.
On the other hand, Gen Z ranges in age from 9-22. As the construction industry looks to build its future workforce, Gen Z is where more focus should be placed.
Gen Z is a much different demographic than millennials.
- Money and job security are very important to Gen Z. Many saw their parents lose their jobs and/or retirement savings following the economic downturn of 2008. Many have grown up seeing their older siblings become overwhelmed with student loan debt.
- Gen Z has grown up with computers, smartphones and other technology.
- Gen Z tends to be a little impatient. That’s due to the way they’ve grown up. If they have a question or need something, they just “Google it” or “Ask Siri.”
When you take all of these characteristics into consideration, a construction company can have success in recruiting Gen Z.
How Can Construction Companies Make a Connection?
Technology has dramatically changed the occupation of an equipment operating engineer. Sitting in the high-tech cab of a modern-day excavator or compactor, etc. is almost like sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. This high-tech working environment can offer a lot of appeal to the younger generation that grew up with technology.
The construction industry is also a growing industry, which satisfies Gen Z’s desire for job security. When you look at the country’s aging infrastructure, a strong workforce to build roads, bridges and wastewater systems, etc. will be in high demand. Furthermore, these jobs cannot be shipped overseas.
This work is also meaningful, which is important to Gen Z. There is something very satisfying about driving by something and saying, “I helped build that.”
In terms of making money, one of the highest-paying construction occupations is operating engineer. There is also the strong potential for career advancement because many construction companies promote from within.
Apprenticeship is the key
Taking all of this into consideration, the apprenticeship model is in perfect alignment with the construction industry’s desire to build its future workforce.
An apprenticeship program helps young people accelerate their careers. When offered to students at the high school level, apprenticeship also serves as an entryway to higher education and ultimately a great career.
Apprenticeship has been a primary focus of the Wisconsin Operating Engineers (WOE) Local 139. We’ve been very successful in lifting the veil on construction industry apprenticeship.
For many years now, there has been a misconception that you need to know someone, maybe an uncle or neighbor, who could help get you into a labor union. That is not true.
WOE now opens its 400-acre training site twice a year for high school students and their families. They can tour the facility, talk to representatives from WOE, and listen to panel discussions on careers in construction. Students can also use simulators to get a taste of what it’s like to operate today’s high-tech construction machinery.
These semi-annual open house events have been a tremendous success. We average 400-500 students each time. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. It is very rewarding — and encouraging. We’re trying to open the doors to the great opportunities in the construction industry. Offering apprenticeships is helping pull more Gen Z high school students through those doors.
Laura Cataldo presented the education session "Attracting and Training Your Workforce: Operating Engineers’ Innovative Solutions" at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020. She led a panel discussion that included representatives from the WOE and International Union of Operating Engineers, a construction company that has hired students through our apprenticeship program, as well as one of the students who has found full-time employment in the construction industry after using our apprenticeship program.
Laura Cataldo is a senior manager with Baker Tilly, a leading advisory, tax and assurance firm. Cataldo has specialized in consulting to the construction industry for nearly 30 years. For the past five years, she has been a consultant for the Wisconsin Operating Engineers (WOE) and its labor management organization, Construction Business Group. Cataldo also sits on a workforce development board in Wisconsin, and is helping lead WOE’s construction industry apprenticeship initiative.