Generational Combustion in Construction

A few years ago, my mom shared some frustrations she was having with her new boss. My mom, her former boss, and many of her cohorts were all in similar generations — they saw eye-to-eye on most day-to-day processes and decisions impacting the company. However, her new boss was a Millennial.

The generational gaps among these employees were hindering collaboration and causing challenges. For example, my mom struggled with the fact that the new CFO did not work in the office each day. The new CFO would sometimes work remotely and hours outside of the traditional 9-5; he enjoyed the flexibility of being able to decide when and where to work.

While there are definite challenges that come with generational differences, they can also bring value to the workplace.

This article highlights common challenges, presents solutions, and offers ways to bridge generational gaps.1

The Challenge

My mom’s situation was eye-opening to the challenges that the workforce faces in an ever-changing environment and society, specifically in the construction and real estate industries. Today’s workforce includes five generations of workers, and each has its own unique preferences, habits, and behaviors.

As a Millennial myself, I could easily see all the traits and characteristics that the Millennial generation has been classified with and why they clashed with my mom’s Baby Boomer work and communication styles.

Each generation also has significance to the others. Without question, the retirement of Baby Boomers is creating an experience gap in the construction industry.

In 2017, the National Center for Construction Education & Research reported that approximately 41% of construction workers will retire by 2031.2 But in 2017, it could not have predicted that a global pandemic would drive many Baby Boomers into early retirement.

While workers of the Baby Boomer generation contemplate their future golden years, the construction industry faces unique challenges. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 344,000 job openings in the construction industry in December 2022.3

When employees from different generations struggle to relate and work together on a job, it often hinders job performance and productivity. This is because every generation has a different communication style and sees  decisions differently.

On top of the challenges with multiple generations working together, the construction and real estate industries are facing a widening age gap. With 42.3 as the median age of construction workers in 2021, Exhibit 1 shows the breakdown of construction workers by age.4

Anecdotally, many construction and real estate C-suite executives have had similar experiences as my mom. Included in those experiences is losing good employees to competitors that understood the importance of harmony among cohorts of different ages while also understanding what drives each generation.

Although remote working can be more challenging in the construction and real estate industries, there are other ways companies can show value to employees who are required to be on a jobsite. An example would be investing in training and apprenticeship programs for all generations and encouraging them to attend these programs together to develop deeper relationships.

How to Bridge the Gaps

Companies in the construction industry are faced with difficult challenges: How will they identify generational differences and ensure that company culture moves the various cohorts to communicate and collaborate in order to improve overall performance and retain top employees?

Exhibit 2 provides insight into each of the five generations and some of their unique preferences, habits, and behaviors.5 Note that none of these traits are exclusive to one generation and not everyone in each generation experiences all the unique preferences, habits, or behaviors listed.

When all these generations come together in the workplace, there is an ample opportunity for tension. Sixty percent of employers report conflict and tensions due to a multigenerational workforce, which can affect worker retention, engagement, and productivity and also places stress on managers and leaders.6

So, how can the construction industry develop the next group of leaders? Taking actions that support the following five characteristics will help bring together multiple generations and allow the next generation of leaders to emerge:

  1. Focus on the similarities
  2. Adapt a people-first approach
  3. Be curious to learn
  4. Seek to understand
  5. Reward the desired results

Focus on the Similarities

When focus is placed on finding similarities among generations rather than differences, people are able to let their guard down and truly get to know one another, which encourages relationships and connections that are deeper than surface level. Try to find a hobby or interest outside of work that employees from different generations have in common. By focusing on similarities, relationships and connections can surpass generational differences.

Another way a company can focus on finding similarities among generations is by having social events that bring employees and their families together so that employees across generations can interact beyond a work capacity.

Adapt a People-First Approach

Younger generations are prioritizing other elements beyond salary increases, such as work-life balance and being able to see how their contributions impact the company overall. These generations want to feel like they are making a difference, whether that be from a desk or the field.

This approach has also been important when it comes to recruiting and retaining in the current skilled labor shortage. Younger generations want to map out their career paths and desire consistent feedback on how they are performing — they want a stake in their futures.

A people-first culture begins at the top. If company leaders recognize what today’s workers want and need and have the courage to implement real change, then they are able to create the kind of culture that’s now in demand. They can meet the expectations of the moment and align with the modern world of work.7

While it is important to be open-minded to the needs and wants of younger generations, it’s just as important to include older generations when discussing and implementing changes as a company. As a leader, it’s important to get buy-in from the whole company vs. a generation; it’s a balancing act to ensure that each generation is heard and considered.

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