By Juli Bacon

If you are used to working with your hands and using tools for your craft, you may wonder how you are going to teach the younger generation the tricks of the home-building trade. If you are in a supporting business in the construction industry, you may have also found yourself frustrated by the new generation’s constant reliance on technology. You watch them texting on their phones, checking their Facebook page, playing on their iPads and watching television all at the same time. Electronic gadgets are their tools.

Rather than think of this as a problem, think of it as an opportunity. Generation X (Gen Xers) and Generation Y (Millennials) are your new workforce. Learning to work with their unique style and tapping into their specific skills just may give you the edge on your competition as labor shortages become the norm in the construction industry.

Looking back through the generations, I imagine that we would hear some common phrases used in one form or another such as: “kids today….”, “I don’t know how this company will survive with the next generation”, “This new generation doesn’t know what work is!” The cold hard truth for current and future business owners; however, is that if you do not learn how to work with each “new” generation, your company will not survive. The construction industry can ill afford to miss an opportunity for new labor. Those who take the time to listen and learn from the Gen Xers and Millennials will have an advantage when the labor shortage is hitting their competition. If you, as an employer, take the time to learn what drives them rather than making assumptions about their work ethics based on their seeming desire for “wasting time” on Facebook and other technology, you will increase your chances of attracting and retaining employees.

Understanding some basic background, characteristics and traits of each generation is the first step in attracting and retaining the Gen Xers and Millennials. Of course, employers need to look at the individual and avoid stereotyping, as each person’s upbringing and unique experiences shape the way he or she lives and works.

Gen X: No Hand-Holding Needed
Gen Xers, typically born between 1965 and 1977 (some say up to 1980), are the children of Baby Boomers, a generation that believes in working hard, paying your dues, and working your way to the top with or without an education. Some Baby Boomers became teenagers in the 1960s and created their own upheaval in America with their “wild” ways. However, they were mellowed by double-digit unemployment, starting families and new responsibilities.

Gen Xers’ parents typically lived to work and were defined by their work. They were dedicated to their jobs and loyal to their employers. Gen Xers were the first children to grow up with two working parents. The first latchkey kids, they came home from school to empty houses. They had to learn to be self-reliant; they did their homework without help, took care of their younger sibling(s) and cooked for themselves. They saw their parents divorce, often more than once. Their parents’ loyalty to their employers crumbled with corporate scandals that depleted their retirement accounts.

Gen Xers were shaped by myriad events that occurred while they were growing up; from the assassination of Robert Kennedy to the fall of the Berlin Wall; from the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the savings and loan crisis; from the Vietnam War to the Persian Gulf War. They saw the rise of the computer age. They remember rotary telephones, eight-track and cassette tapes and DOS-based computer systems.

Generation X Characteristics and Traits

  • Self-reliance, resourcefulness and working independently
  • Adaptable to change
  • Little patience for meetings without purpose
  • Comfortable with technology
  • Desire for a challenging workplace with accountability
  • Emphasis placed on the quality of the work and accomplishing the work rather than the number of hours worked
  • High value on family and personal time and working to live rather than living to work. Seek companies with work/life benefits.
  • More likely to ask for flexible schedules to meet family needs or ask to work from home

Employers can attract and retain Gen Xers by:

  1. Creating a work/ life balance in their workplaces. Employers need to set aside the idea that if they don’t see the employee, they aren’t working. Gen Xers have strong work ethics, but will not sacrifice their family life for it. They like the ability to work from home if needed.
  2. Challenge them with interesting projects, make sure they understand the deliverables, performance measures, and then get out of their way. They may find a faster, more efficient way of completing the task that increases production and efficiencies.
  3. Invest in technology to help them complete their jobs in a timely manner; take time to ask what tools the Gen Xers would use.
  4. Appoint them as team leaders and let them do the leading.
  5. Allow for flexible schedules, ability to work from home as it pertains to their jobs. Reward them with additional paid time off.
  6. Motivate by direct positive feedback, while providing clear direction and goals to be met. Quarterly, to annual, performance evaluations are important. However, Gen Xers will need immediate feedback on their assigned projects to keep moving and complete their work.

Gen Xers are loyal to their employers, provided their employers allow them to work to live, but will jump ship if they feel that balance is being interfered with or being taken away from them.

Gen Y: Let’s Do This Together
Millennials, born in the mid to late 1970s up to mid to late 1990s, have been referred to as the “Me” generation. Millennials are the children of late-end Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers. Their parents negotiated with them and gave them choices rather than consequences. They were told everything they did was great, and everyone on their team received a trophy. Their parents kept them busy with endless extracurricular activities and team sports. They often have good relationships with their parents and may live with their parents until they are married. They went to college and their parents paid for it.

They don’t just use technology, they embrace it. They grew up with it, use it regularly, rely on it, and seem to be unable to live without it. They often work to buy more electronic gadgets and to play. For Millennials, technology is an integral part of their lives and they use it to make their life more pleasant and to make their work easier.

Millennial Characteristics and Traits:

  • Often those that are “caught” on Facebook or texting at work, but they are actually managing their workload, as well as managing their busy electronic social lives.
  • Make good team players and like working in teams, but that may not be a face-to-face team. They may want to work via web-based tools such as Skype or video conferencing. They will instant message or text a colleague in the next cubicle rather than get up and meet with them face-to-face.
  • Appreciate mentors that don’t preach to them, but rather those that gently guide them with questions and choices.
  • Need regular, and consistent, positive reinforcement on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. They need to be told when they are doing a good job.
  • They ask first about the money or benefits of a job rather than about the company.
  • Lack loyalty to an employer that stifles their creativity or will not allow them the use social media or electronic devices in the workplace.

Attract and retain Millennials by:

  1. Creating social media and electronic media usage policies, with generous allotment of time for personal use, provided their essential job functions are completed in a timely manner.
  2. Create a team-based atmosphere and provide recognition and reward for a job well done.
  3. Invest in cutting-edge technology with input from the Millennials.
  4. Assign mentors to new employees, with specific instructions to the mentors on how to guide the new employee.
  5. Enlist Millennials in researching new products, procedures and best practices. They may find a new program that streamlines your production process or more accurately estimates the amount of material you use on a job.
  6. Ask them for their input on new benefits and compensation plans and offer them something that allows them the freedom to “work to live”.
  7. Engage them in assisting with social media and other e-media marketing.
  8. Motivate them with positive reinforcement and constructive correction, rather than criticism.

If you are a Baby Boomer, or an early-era Gen Xer, you are rolling your eyes about now. You are thinking that you don’t have time to babysit. But this is your new workforce. Tap into their knowledge and use of technology. Teach them that the tools of your trade are as necessary to construction as their electronic “tools” are to them. Your new customers are Gen Xers and soon will be Millennials; you will need like-minded individuals to help you reach your target audience and to speak the new customers’ language.

Teach them the trade skills of your business, while allowing them to put their unique spin on the execution. They can learn from you as well; for instance, there is value to staying focused on one task at a time and completing without interruption. New ideas and new approaches are crucial to the survival of any business and especially for construction. You will always need the artisans, but you need the new ideas and excitement of the current generations.

The construction industry is facing serious labor shortages. Embrace the change now and get used to it because Generation Z— as the toddlers who are playing with their parents’ smart phones are called — will be entering the workforce before you know it. Who knows what challenges they will bring to the table.

This article first appeared in Building Women magazine, a publication of NAHB Professional Women in Building.