There’s an old saying that it’s easy to find workers, but difficult to keep good ones. While the second half of the statement may still be true, it’s now harder than ever before to find those new employees. In the building trades, that labor shortage is worrisome for managers and owners all across the country. In Boston, where the current building boom shows little sign of slowing, the lack of “new blood” and the aging of construction-related workers is especially apparent and disturbing.

Whether at the lumberyard, the equipment counter or on a high-rise building site, the need is great, spurred by both pent-up demand for new housing and a recovering economy that spawns new commercial projects. For many different reasons the construction skills gap is reaching critical proportions. Laments vary from unrealistic Millennial expectations to the loss of vocational programs and the widespread perception that “making things” is no longer valued work.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) show that nearly 200,000 construction industry jobs are unfilled across the country at a boom time for homebuilders, a jump of 81 percent in just two years,” according to a February 2017 curbed.com article.

With unemployment rates in the construction trades lower than they’ve been in years, the solution is not easy, particularly when coupled with statistics that show the existing workforce is rapidly greying, and the average age rising. There are, however, some bright spots.

Hiring and Retention Practices that Work

Today’s new hires will be tomorrow’s movers and doers, decision-makers, and drivers of a construction industry that is sure to undergo many changes. In order to assure a healthy future:

  1. Look for the Better Way: Technology is transforming modern life. It can also instill new life and efficiency in the office and on the job site. Be open to innovation. Brainstorm with your younger employees; invite and respond to new ideas. Learn that flows in both directions makes everyone more effective, from the stock room to the board room. It’s this dynamic that will refresh any operation by tapping into the potential and and capturing the imagination of the young dreamers you hire.
  2. Invest in Team Building: Create a company culture that acknowledges diversity and individuality. Make it clear that building a successful business is the goal, but that it’s not all about dollars and cents. Your new hires require support, reinforcement, correction when necessary, and a pat on the back when appropriate. In short, they deserve to be treated like people, working in cooperation with other people.
  3. Insist on Competence, but Reward Mastery: If you don’t currently have an effective and continuing training program, now is the time to create one. Make it clear that no job is a dead-end position, and that opportunity at your firm is written in capital letters. Also know that not all rewards are financial. Additional responsibility and creative leeway can be as enticing as salary and benefits.
  4. Humanize the Workplace: About those Millennials: Yes, they may see the world differently from Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. But they have reached the age where they want to settle down, do good work, raise a family, become part of a community and make a difference in the world. They also believe that co-workers — even bosses — are part of an extended family. Listen to them; it’s not a bad way to build a cohesive work environment.
  5. Emphasize the Upside: Construction is hard work, sometimes under less than pleasant conditions. Construction requires long hours and sometimes it takes a long time to see progress; there are delays and changes, setbacks and problems. But it’s never boring. That often beats 9-5 hours behind a desk. And when it’s all said and done, a construction worker can point to the finished product and say with pride, “I helped build that.”

Generational differences are not new. It’s likely that cathedral builders in the Middle Ages decried the work ethic of their apprentices. Today’s new employees will, without a doubt, be repeating some of the same concerns a generation from now.

Here at NEBS, we’re trying to be very modern! We’ve revamped our website and redirected our social media presence, as you may have noticed. It’s all part of our ongoing recruiting effort to adapt to the times and plan for the future, so that next year and a decade from now, our customers will find us as responsive to their local construction and design needs as we are today!

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