A changing workforce requires rethinking construction roles and re-branding the industry’s image.
The technological advancements the construction industry has seen in recent years, and will continue to experience, represent a microcosm of what’s occurring across industries globally. Yet, the changes in this mature and often slow to adapt industry have far-reaching implications for U.S. communities – in the structures being built, the materials being used, the costs of development and even the roles the workforce performs.
The transformations aren’t limited to equipment. The construction industry is faced with the need to evolve its workforce and their roles in the field, in the shop and in the office. How you do so could directly affect your company’s long-term success.
Adjust Your Thinking About How & When Work is Done
One of the biggest challenges facing the construction industry today is a shrinking labor force. The aging workforce, coupled with changing priorities among today’s eligible workers, has made retaining and securing talent increasingly difficult.
According to “This Is Why Millennials Care so Much About Work-Life Balance” by Ryan Jenkins (https://bit.ly/2mbAnya), today’s workforce has a different mindset than most working professionals in past generations – they are “never offline and always available,” meaning the line between work life and home life has become blurred. For this “always on” generation, a company’s ability to offer a healthy work-life balance can be a compelling advantage in a tight job market. This balance typically calls for greater flexibility in working hours and location, quality of life-related benefits (e.g., health insurance, paid vacations, etc.) and meaningful work with advancement opportunities.
Your mindset about when and where the work is done may have to change, as well. “If you look at some of the things the younger generation is looking for in terms of work-life balance and work time flexibility, you can build business models around how to use that to your advantage,” advised Michael Ballweber, senior vice president – Commercial Business, Doosan Bobcat Inc., while participating in an OEM panel at the 2019 AED (Associated Equipment Distributors) Summit in Orlando, FL. “Look at it as an opportunity as opposed to saying, ‘That doesn’t fit with what we’ve typically done’.”
Take skilled service technicians, a commodity hard for both dealers and contractors to come by. “If you have technicians who want to work from noon to 8 p.m. rather than 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., how do you use that in your business to your advantage, rather than saying, ‘It doesn’t fit with what we like to do?’” asked Ballweber.
Also maintain an open mind about how such work is performed. “We do have to fix machines,” said Jason Daly, global director, marketing & support, John Deere Construction & Forestry Company. “But it doesn’t have to be the means of fixing machines that we’ve done in the past. There could smarter ways.”
It’s also important to make those in roles such as service techs see the value in what they do – and that you recognize that value, too.
“It’s very important for [them] to understand that you rate this job high,” said Peter Mayr, president, Liebherr Construction Equipment Co. “It’s a very straightforward job. You go out in the morning and fix a machine, you see it up and running and you are satisfied with it and go home.” Yet, beyond satisfaction at a job well done, techs need to feel that their role is highly regarded – and that they be paid accordingly. “It’s a very different job for young people, and we have to make sure they understand how much we appreciate them doing that job.”
Break Down the Barriers
As they're prepping for future careers, construction is hardly the first industry that comes to mind among younger workers. Misconceptions about the types of jobs available, what they entail and the working environment are largely to blame.
“We’re all collectively in this industry going to need to… find the means to market to people and change the perception of what we do,” said Daly. “Finding new means of attracting these people through marketing and energies that are put in place – like through the AED Foundation – are great… and if we can do that collectively, maybe we can break down barriers that we haven’t done in the past.”
Part of breaking down those barriers is reaching out to young people – and their parents – earlier than ever. “Typically, we’ve tried to reach out to tech schools and things like that, but I think today you have to go a lot younger than that,” said Daly. “We’ve actually reached out to kids as young as middle school to bring them into [our North Carolina] factory to show them there are paths that aren’t centered around traditional four-year colleges but still give them great opportunities.”
Stephen Roy, president, sales, Region Americas, Volvo Construction Equipment, agreed, adding, “We have to start in junior high. We have to start talking to parents at that point in time – they don’t have to go to college; there are great opportunities outside of college.
“Quite frankly, schools have brainwashed that everybody has to go to college. You can go out and spend $120,000 and end up in a $30,000 job,” he commented. “We have to start early, and we have to start addressing this… at a higher level, or else we’re going to continue to have a shortage.”
The message is whether you make, sell or rent machines or move dirt and build structures and roads, the construction industry needs to convey early and often that it offers a different job environment than it did in the past.
“The industry has a great opportunity to communicate better and change our image,” stated Philip Kelliher, vice president, Americas, Distribution Services Division, Caterpillar. “When you look at it, we have some of the most advanced technology anywhere. A lot of the young people don’t realize that. I think we have a challenge to better communicate with the youth of today the opportunities in working as a technician or an engineer and in the various other elements of the business.”
“It’s much more technical,” agreed Daily, “and you need a lot of different skill sets.”
Advancements in technology can prove a useful tool in changing perceptions. Consider that a new study commissioned by the AED Foundation reports more than 80% of heavy equipment will be powered by electric powertrains and have systems central to autonomous operation within 10 to 15 years.
“We have an opportunity here to attract new talent on the technical side with automation and autonomy like never before,” Daly pointed out. “If we reach out and brand this industry differently… it can really revolutionize how [we attract] talent into the industry.”