First Word: Get to know Generation Y

With baby boomers in construction retiring earlier than those in other professions, the urgency of attracting young workers to our industry is increasing.

The first baby boomer began collecting Social Security retirement benefits in February – and an average of 10,000 per day over the next 20 years will be eligible to apply – but the exodus from the construction labor pool has been underway for years. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training’s Construction Chart Book, baby boomers accounted for 49 percent of the construction workforce in 2000, but only 40 percent of it in 2005. During the same period, the percentage of baby boomers in the overall labor force declined only 4.4 percentage points.

Since there might not be enough members of Generation X (birth years 1965 to about 1980) to fill even the management positions boomers are vacating, our industry, like many, will rely heavily on the next “Y” generation – or the Millenials – to meet labor needs. The good news is there are plenty of them. With a U.S. population of 72 million, Generation Y is sometimes referred to as the echo boom because it rivals the baby boomer generation’s 78 million, compared to Generation X’s 48 million.

The bad news is recruiting these workers to your company could be less than half the battle. Working with, motivating and retaining Generation Y is proving a huge challenge. This subject is already the focus of books, articles, research and even organizations, despite the fact Ys, roughly between ages 14 and 28, currently comprise only 12 percent of the labor market. The consensus of those who have studied Generation Y is that understanding how the “entitlement” generation was brought up and what makes them tick is the key to tapping their talent.

Here are some things you need to know about Ys:

  • They’re tech-savvy multi-taskers. Most can barely remember a time before the Internet and e-mail, and as kids they balanced a rigorous schedule of extracurricular activities in addition to schoolwork. These traits make Ys ideal candidates for the increasingly high-tech construction field. It also makes overcoming construction’s image as a low-tech profession imperative.
  • They have confidence in spades. Ambitious Ys expect to change the companies they work for and aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. This can rub other employees the wrong way. Changing from a traditional command-and-do management style to one of collaboration can help employees better understand one another.
  • Company loyalty is an alien concept to them. According to one survey, when asked to rank the following, Ys placed company behind family, friends, community, co-workers and themselves. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by age 32, today’s young adults will have had approximately eight jobs. This doesn’t mean you can’t retain them; it just means you have to know what they want out of their careers and provide it.

Many Fortune 500 companies have recognized the emerging generation as the future of their businesses, and are changing recruiting strategies and cultures accordingly. If you do the same, your firm could be in the driver’s seat as baby boomer retirement peaks.