We’ve just ushered in a new year … and with that comes rejuvenated attitudes and the anticipation of capitalizing on what appears to be —especially in our industry —an improving economy.

Despite the positive growth in employment, however, there are sobering statistics surrounding the widening gap between construction labor demand and supply. Between 2010 and 2025, up to 95 million Baby Boomers will leave the U.S. workforce or change work focus, but only 40 million Generation X and Y workers will be available to replace them. The bottom line is that our industry is struggling to find younger workers who have the skills and motivation to fill these positions.

What do we do?

As we search for, train and — more importantly — retain this new set of workers, we really need to examine what motivates this new generation. Generation Y was born between the years of 1980 and 1999, putting them between the ages of 14 and 33 today.

“I believe that demography is destiny,” said Tom Applegate, a member of the PHCC Educational Foundation Board of Directors and a lifelong educator. “One only has to look at the population statistics, and it paints your destiny — either in terms of your customer base or your employee base.”

Applegate has focused his career on analyzing business industry needs and how education can best meet those needs, which most recently has involved dissecting what drives this latest generation. With that, he offers the PHCC Educational Foundation invaluable advice on how the p-h-c industry can attract, train and keep our workers of tomorrow.

First and foremost, Applegate advises that managers and owners in this industry need to show that they’re willing to step back and take a look at the way they use and employ people.

“If you look at a lot of the members of PHCC, most of them are in their 50s and 60s, and they’ve been very successful in the past,” he said. “However, the strategies and tools and philosophies that resulted in success for past generations will not trickle down to the needs of today.”

Evaluating who you employ and how you work with them starts with examining the traits and attitudes of Generation Y workers:

  • They take a much more laid back approach when it comes to working (almost the reverse thinking of that of their Baby Boomer parents).
  • They view their workplaces in a much less formal way.
  • They don’t fear authority and are practically immune to the “or else” attitudes that some companies use.
  • They do not form loyalties easily.
  • They will quickly and easily leave a company for another if they do not feel they are being treated well enough or become bored with a situation.
  • They are often considered impatient, skeptical, demanding and self-interested.

On a positive note, Generation Y workers:

  • Are confident in themselves.
  • Are flexible and open-minded.
  • Are well-educated, quick on their feet, creative and able to multi-task.
  • Respond well to those who respect them.

How do we attract Generation Y?

With that, Applegate urges managers and owners to think about and act upon what motivates Generation Y.

“The three things that drive a Baby Boomer are money, loyalty and job security,” said Applegate. Generation Y, however, is driven by loyalty (to a person, but not necessarily to an organization), challenging work and creative work.

Indeed, while members of Generation Y are known for spending more than they make, they are not as driven by money. Therefore, to attract people into this industry, Applegate said, “The first thing should not be to lead with what the annual salary is. You should lead with what’s interesting and what’s challenging … how to be creative, how to be a problem solver, how to think outside the box to find solutions.”

Applegate continued, “Owners and managers first need to change their own thinking. We tend to gravitate toward people who have the same characteristics that we have, and you can’t do that; you can’t exclude a whole set of people who think about things differently. We need to understand that ‘one size does not fit all.’ We need to figure out how to let this generation work independently. We need to allow them to look for different solutions.”

For example, Applegate explained that he bought a tablet and has enjoyed exploring its capabilities. He questioned if an employer would buy an employee a tablet and let him or her tinker with it and figure out how he or she could use it to do a job more efficiently, even if the return on investment wasn’t immediate?

Allowing today’s workers to investigate and develop creative solutions is crucial to attracting and retaining motivated, skilled employees.

“Generation Ys are astoundingly creative,” said Applegate. “They love it when a manager or supervisor acts on one of their ideas. Invest time in building that rapport.”

In offering another perspective, Applegate said, “The reality of the workplace today is behavioral modification.”

Start looking at ways to motivate employees from a different side of the scope. For instance, Generation Y workers value time off more than they value money. So, if being prompt to the jobsite, for example, is an issue in your company, Applegate suggests building in a reward system that gives those who are prompt additional time off (as opposed to taking disciplinary action against those who are not prompt).

“We have to quit thinking about how it would impact us and think about things that would incent this younger group,” said Applegate.

The emerging workforce

Like any technique in connecting with a particular segment, Applegate urges PHCC members and leaders to “know your audience and target your message to what they know and want.” For the kids coming out of high school, he suggests, go into their educational setting (career days, etc.) and show the value add of a career in the p-h-c industry. “Lead off with some high-tech gizmo and let them start tinkering with it,” said Applegate.

Also, don’t rule out the “transitional worker,” Applegate said. In addition to targeting young graduates or incumbent workers, all preparation materials must also focus on the worker who is transitioning between jobs — perhaps someone coming out of the military or a mother just entering the workforce after staying home with kids.

Most importantly, according to Applegate, PHCC needs to simply stress getting the appropriate skills.

“Fitting that into a traditional apprentice model” is not as important as learning the skills, which are more crucial than ever with technological advances, he noted.

“The push nationally is to have industry-based credentials that validate skills that workers have,” said Applegate. “Skills, and then the verification of those skills, should be the underpinning of a training program,” he added.

The need for skilled workers is certain. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2006-2016, HVACR jobs will grow by 9%, and plumbing jobs will increase by 11%. We must now also face another reality: these positions will be filled by members of a generation who are motivated in much different ways than those who went before them.

“Strive to deepen your relationships with Generation Ys,” said Applegate. “When Gen Ys really believe that you care about them, they will care about you … and even begin to understand why caring is so important.”

Cindy Sheridan is Chief Operating Officer of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association Educational Foundation. You can contact her at: sheridan@naphcc.org.