Attracting The Next Generation In Construction: Thoughts & Methods

OwenD_a_baby_on_a_futuristic_construction_site_sucking_its_dumm_4b6cdc73-add9-4362-9383-b9162f4d4c16

 

List 1: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram Reels. Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnight. Twitch, Patreon, OnlyFans

List 2: Dust, dirt, cold. Site cabin, portaloo, plastic chair. Back-breaking work, the risk of injury/death

Which list sounds more attractive? It depends on who you ask.

My Dad would totally advocate for number 2.

“There’s nothing like getting your butt cheeks stuck to the portaloo seat when using the toilet on site in 0-degree temperatures”. He didn’t really say that, but I guess his generation, the baby boomers, are the last of the so-called toughened workers in Western culture.

boomer meme.
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Side note: this meme reminds me of a time on site when one of my directors pointed out a 60-ish-year-old groundworker and claimed he was only 25. The back-breaking work aged him 35 years in the space of 5. Ouch!

Dissimilarly, if you ask a soft millennial and wanna-be content creator like me, list one does look pretty appealing. But with a boomer-Dad, I’ve still earned my stripes from list two.

That brings me to Gen-Z (born after 1995) and Gen-Alpha (born between 2010-2024). lol – my daughter is Gen-Alpha.

What are we going to do, guys?

WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO
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Apparently, less than a third of Gen Z would *consider* a career in the built environment. 

The keyword here is ‘consider’. How many actually end up in the industry?

I guess the answer is to be revealed.

 

Why Is Construction So Much More Unattractive?

uni gen z meme

An excellent place to start is the findings of the report mentioned earlier.

I don’t want this blog post to be another regurgitation of this report. There are plenty of articles that have done this already. But here are some key findings:

  • One-third of the participants felt the industry was male-dominated
  • 26% perceived the industry to be dangerous
  • 28% perceived the industry to be dirty
  • Only a third considered construction to be a significant contributor to tackling the climate crisis

Moreover, the four-day (or hour!?) work week, remote working, ping-pong tables and Friday happy hours make working on a construction site even worse.

 

But with all the negative hype, is it that bad?

Another study found that young people may be warming to the sector.

In summary, 56% of 2,000 18 to 29-year-olds considered construction an ‘attractive’ career prospect.

But even with this, finance (wtf), social media influencer, designer and educator scored more highly than construction trades.

 

OK – We Have A Problem. What Can We Do About It?

It’s great to moan and point fingers at the poor ol’ construction industry, but something needs to be done. Along with some of my experience, research and opinions, and insights from experts from our podcast, we will explore what we can do to attract the next generation to the industry.

 

First, Understand What A Generation Is:

We all live in some form of generation. And it is only a matter of time before we go full circle, back to the psychological patterns and behaviours witnessed in a previous generation. Fashion also shifts, as does music preference and interests and desires for the future. Political and socioeconomic events shape what is important from one generation to the next. Younger people do not share the same values as the older generation, and this creates a divide whereby the older folk see the ‘youth of today’ as troublesome. As this younger generation makes it’s way to the later years of life, they become the leaders and their values imprinted on the world around us.

According to Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, history moves in four acts or generations:

  • First: Revolutionaries who make a radical break with the past
  • Second: Those who crave order, feeling the effects of the previous generation revolution
  • Third: Pragmatists who are less passionate about the revolution and want comfort
  • Fourth: Questioners of society and cynics, looking to tear down the old order and start a new revolution. And so the pattern continues.

Taken from The Laws Of Human Nature, here’s an example of the above:

If we go back four generations in our own time we can clearly see this. We start with the silent generation. As children experiencing the Great Depression and as adults coming of age during World War II and the postwar period, they became rather cautious and conservative, valuing stability, material comforts, and fitting tightly into the group. The next generation, the baby boomers, found the conformity of their parents rather stifling. Emerging in the 1960s, and not haunted by the harsh financial realities of their parents, this generation valued personal expression, having adventures, and being idealistic. This was followed by Generation X, which was marked by the chaos of the 1960s and the ensuing social and political scandals. Coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, it was pragmatic and confrontational, valuing individualism and Self-reliance. This generation reacted against the hypocrisies and impracticalities in their parents’ idealism. This was followed by the millennial generation. Traumatized by terrorism and a financial crisis, they reacted against the individualism of the last generation, craving security and teamwork, with a noted dislike of conflict and confrontation.

Generational shifts cannot be altered. It is a cycle of human life on Earth, and so we must work with it. Understanding this, we can implement some behaviours to help us ensure the wisdom of the previous generation is retained, and that we are focusing on the long-term future, not just the shortsighted approach to challenges of the present.

Some key points on Generational Myopia based on Robert Greene’s insights:

  1. Historical Disconnect: People often feel disconnected from history, believing that the present is unprecedented and that the past holds little relevance. This leads to a lack of perspective.
  2. Underestimation of Past Wisdom: Earlier generations encountered and solved numerous problems, and their wisdom and insights can often guide present actions. Ignoring this knowledge can lead to reinventing the wheel or making avoidable mistakes.
  3. Overconfidence in the Present: With advancements in technology and society, there’s a tendency to believe that the current generation knows best. This can lead to overconfidence and oversight.
  4. Neglecting Long-term Consequences: Being too focused on the present can lead to actions that have detrimental effects in the long run. Previous generations may have insights into these potential pitfalls.
  5. Learning from the Past: Greene suggests that one can overcome generational myopia by actively studying history, understanding the cycles of human nature, and applying the lessons learned to present-day situations.
  6. Value of Perspective: By understanding the broader sweep of history and human behavior, one gains a richer perspective that can guide decision-making and interpersonal understanding.

Robert Greene’s concept of Generational Myopia underscores the importance of understanding and learning from the past to navigate the present and anticipate the future. We must cultivate a broader perspective that encompasses not just their own generation’s experiences but the collective wisdom of humanity.

So with that said, what can we do to attract Gen Z?

 

What Makes A Career Attractive?

I won’t discuss things like the golden ratio or what to look for in a partner. But we will explore what attracts us to a career or industry and apply this to the traits of the next generations.

Attraction is “the action or power of evoking interest in or liking for someone or something”.

In my previous article on tech implementation, I wrote about Herzberg’s Motivation/Hygiene theory, which suggests that reward and recognition are vital motivators for employees, as opposed to salary and job security.

 

More Specifically For Generation Z:

A great piece of research by Deloitte came up with the following top motivators for Gen Z:

  • Opportunities for growth
  • Building relationships
  • Personal accomplishment

Moreover, this article on the BBC claims Gen Z are ‘obsessed’ with getting a high salary, and many others take on side hustles to earn as much as possible.

Finally, a piece by Harvard Business Review, citing McKinsey’s research, found that Gen Z values:

  • Transparency and open access to information
  • Career progression and understanding how to succeed
  • Their individual contribution; how and why their role matters
  • Autonomy and opportunities to use their strengths, such as technology and social media
  • Continuous, clear feedback with examples
  • A sense of community and connection with their colleagues
  • Mental health and wellness

If you connect the dots, you notice that a career promising high growth, a good salary, and a profound, meaningful contribution makes gen z click.

A career in construction offers all of these. So why are we experiencing a colossal labour shortage?

 

Awareness, Awareness, Awareness (And The Education System)

When we sat down to talk with modular construction hero Ken Semler,  we posed the question of attracting the next generation. Ken has worked in the industry for over 20 years, and here is what he had to say:

“But I really think if you start looking at the numbers, which is always interesting here in the US, that person who goes to college spends maybe $200,000 plus in tuition and everything to get there comes out with, you know, debt mom and Dad couldn’t pay for it and that their first job makes 35 or 40,000 a year. 

If I’m a welder who goes to a trade school and I come out, I go to a two-year trade school that probably has some scholarships or with no debt or was such at a low price I could afford to pay as I went. And now my first job is $60,000 a year. And you see that a lot that if the young people just could, guidance counselors would just explain option A and option B, I think, you know, cause I’ve seen people, they go to college, they spend $100,000, they drop out.”

This is the same scenario here in the UK.

In school, you are funnelled to go to university, and rack up >£50,000 of debt with no guarantee of a job. Why?

School targets, governmental interests, keeping you in ‘the system’, and a lack of awareness.

I believe the ultimate solution here lies with the government and schools. But that doesn’t mean we, as influencers in the industry, don’t have a part to play. We can all contribute to raising awareness to school leavers and students.

 

Changing Perceptions

Male domination. Fact.

In the US, females comprise around 11% of the construction workforce, similar to the UK. Whilst this is a shocking statistic, things are changing.

We have interviewed some fantastic females on the show (CC Hattie Walker Arnott, Erin Khan, Delia Visan, April Moss, Lynne Cooper and Alice Leung). And from my experience in these interviews, these people are genuinely passionate about their roles and what construction has done for them.

The topic of gender diversity in construction came up in detail in our interview with April Moss & Lynne Cooper. Here are the critical points regarding female variety and attracting Gen Z:

  • Currently, less than 3% of construction workers in the field are women. The percentage of women architects, engineers, and project managers is around 30-33% higher.
  • There are very few visible female role models working on construction sites. Seeing more diversity on site regarding gender, race, neurodiversity etc., can help attract a broader range of young people.
  • Organisations like Women in Pharma advocate for and connect women in construction with mentors and mentees. Mentorship on both sides is essential to retain women in the industry.
  • Allowing students of any gender to take courses like drafting, carpentry, welding etc., in high school without special permission can expose more young women to construction careers. Breaking gender stereotypes early is key.
  • Promoting project management and supply chain roles could be an effective way to attract more women, as these roles align well with the skills that many women have. But overall, all roles should be open.
  • Having more women at trade show booths and as speakers at industry events provides visibility. Construction tech startups with women in leadership roles also showcase the possibility of advancement.
  • Ensuring job sites have proper accommodations and policies to support women’s needs is essential, though basic infrastructure issues still need addressing first in some developing countries.
  • While progress is being made in attracting more women, continued effort is needed across education, recruitment, mentoring, and workplace culture to move the needle on gender diversity in construction.

BONUS POINT – The Three Things Lynne would tell younger people:

  • Legally protect yourself. You are employed at your will and you need to advocate for yourself. If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else will.
  • Advocate for yourself. Make sure you agree with the legal documents you sign to work, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Empower others because that energy comes back to you if you empower others. And collaborate well. If you can join a team, jump in, do something, and collaborate and help the other, help the energy of the group.

Build Communities For Women In Construction

I’ve seen some great communities for women in construction around London and the Globe. Here are some of my favourites:

  1. Women In Construction Tech
  2. C-Tech Club (Female Founders)
  3. National Association Of Women In Construction

 

Introduce Gamification

Unquestionably, Millennials and Gen Z are into their games. If not for Xbox Live in 2011, I wouldn’t be in the industry <- [listen to this podcast to hear my story].

There are lots of stats and lots of contrasting data. But the bottom line is that most Millenials and Gen Z consider gaming one of their favourite entertainment activities.

So, why are we not making more effort to add some form of gamification into the industry? Here is Alex Walzer, Doctoral Research For Digital Fabrication and Robotics In Construction, talking about the subject:

In the video, Alex talks about building gaming versus building buildings.

Moreover, how do we gamify physical activity? Here’s a thought exercise for you from the same podcast. Can we replace cigarettes with protein shakes?

Build Strong Communities

Community building comes up a lot when trying to find solutions to the problems in construction. For example, building an internal community can help when trying to implement construction technology.

But with the rise of the internet and platforms like Discord, Slack, WhatsApp, TikTok, YouTube and just about any other social media site, community building has never been more important AND accessible.

As mentioned earlier, a sense of belonging and community is a crucial driver of Gen Z, so this must be noticed.

Humans have a strong desire and need to belong to something. Being part of the group and having some things in common makes us feel wanted.

Moreover, communities benefit more than just the individuals in them.

Owing to a concept of ‘collective efficacy’, groups of people are more effective:

“In communities where neighbours share the belief that they can band together to overcome crime, there is significantly less violence (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). In companies, when team members hold positive beliefs about the team’s capabilities, there is greater creativity and productivity (Kim & Shin, 2015). And in schools, when educators believe in their combined ability to influence student outcomes, there are significantly higher levels of academic achievement (Bandura, 1993).” Source: https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-power-of-collective-efficacy

Aside from building a community to join the

Interested in joining a construction community? Here are some of my favourites:

I’ve been working on building a community in construction tech for a while. It is no easy feat, but here are my key lessons I’ve learned in doing so:

  1. Less is more; one strong community with different subject matters is better than lots of individual communities.
  2. Community manager; if you can afford to, assign community management roles or hire a manager to run the community and keep everyone engaged
  3. Be consistent; whether that’s releasing content or hosting a regular event, people want to feel engaged and that they are genuinely part of something.

 

Changing (And Documenting) Cultures

Culture is more of a buzzword than anything else these days. But it is the most important thing we must do in construction to make our industry more attractive.

By focussing on the points we mentioned earlier, we can make our industry more appealing:

  • Transparency and open access to information
  • Career progression and understanding how to succeed
  • Their individual contribution; how and why their role matters
  • Autonomy and opportunities to use their strengths, such as technology and social media
  • Continuous, clear feedback with examples
  • A sense of community and connection with their colleagues
  • Mental health and wellness

One other thing we must also focus on is documenting the cultural shifts our companies go through. This can be through how we structure job adverts and utilise social media to raise awareness about our brand.

What do companies like Google, Apple, Tesla & Microsoft have in common?

They do a fantastic job of documenting their culture. From Google’s 20% project system to charismatic leaders such as Steve Jobs – whose videos appear in every entrepreneur/business circle – these companies know the importance of brand image and spreading the word to attract the best employees.

But in any attempt to instil a strong culture, authenticity is also essential. People can see right through any half-arsed attempts. And not doing what you say almost certainly results in the opposite of the desired effect.

 

Conclusion

Historically seen as rugged, challenging, and male-dominated, the construction industry is at a crossroads. With the younger generations absorbed by digital platforms and content creation, there’s a real concern: who will uphold and evolve the backbone industries that shape our physical world?

The answer is not in choosing between TikTok and a cold, back-breaking day on a construction site.

Instead, it’s about reshaping the narrative around construction and highlighting the core values that resonate with younger generations.

If there’s anything the digital age has taught us, perceptions can be malleable. And with the right strategies in place—like gamifying aspects of construction, nurturing diverse and inclusive communities, or documenting and promoting an evolved workplace culture—there’s potential to display construction as a fulfilling, meaningful, and modern career choice.

The changing metrics of what defines an ‘attractive’ career are clear: it’s no longer just about a paycheck. It’s about purpose, growth, community, and making an impact. And the construction industry ticks all these boxes.

While it’s easy to draw distinctions and form biases, it’s essential to remember that every profession, whether a content creator on TikTok or a ground worker at a construction site, has its own challenges and rewards.

The narrative is about something other than one being better than the other but understanding the evolving dynamics of the job market and ensuring industries are equipped to attract future talent. To all industries out there – it’s time to develop, communicate, and, most importantly, connect. The future workforce is watching.

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