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The Millennials are coming, the Millennials are coming!

Jan. 10, 2017
With that in mind, how can we attract, assimilate and retain the Millennials into our trades? Attract is the front door of your company. It’s what you have to do to bring them in. Retain is the back door of your company. It’s whatever happened that allowed you to lose an employee. Assimilate means how well you keep people from coming through the front door and not going out the back door. If you don’t assimilate well, the back door is as wide as the front door and used just as often.
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If you think Paul Revere’s warning — “The British are coming! The British are coming!” — was a significant piece of historical information, consider this: When the British were coming, it was 700 British soldiers in a handful of long-boats crossing the Charles River to meet with a handful of Sons of Liberty in Concord and Lexington. It made all the headlines.

But in the case of the Millennials, 80 million of them are coming. 80 million! It’s the largest single generational block of human beings to ever hit the United States of America.

And this is not a warning that they are coming; this is a statement that they are already here. So, the real question that needs to be asked is: “Now that they are here, where are they going?”

Well, apparently, it is not into the trades. All of us know this, all of us are aware of this. Not enough plumbers, not enough electricians, not enough HVAC technicians, not enough … well, you fill in the blank. We’re all getting older. The last HVAC meeting I was at had so many white heads, it looked like it had just snowed.

And as different as the Baby Boomers were to the world, with their idealism and rejection of traditional values, the Millennials are bringing their own “special sauce” to the table. And the “special sauce” that they are bringing is a composite of what they have learned and seen that came from the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

If we’re not happy with the way they turned out, don’t blame it on them; blame it on ourselves. We taught them this stuff. We taught them that there were no winners or losers; everyone finishes the same. Since the generation before us was not very encouraging and often very judgmental, we made sure this generation was affirmed at every turn with a constant barrage of “good job!” and “well done!”

And so they are understandably shocked to find performance reviews and work performance expectations in the workplace, which transfers into their minds as a distrust and scepticism about corporate America. We told them that they had to have a four-year college degree to be successful, only for them to find out that 53.6 percent of those who did graduate — one out of two — will be unemployed or underemployed (Young Entrepreneur Council). And they are coming out of college deeply in debt. The average college debt is $28,900 dollars, with the median debt at $52,000!

And then we handed them a stagnant economy and one of the toughest economic environments to come along since the Great Depression. Which explains this quote from a Millennial on a popular Millennial website:

“Being a millennial is like inheriting a burning house, only to be told it’s our fault we can’t handle the heat.”

And somehow in the midst of all of that, we forgot to tell them that the trades are a terrific career path and a great field in which to work.

So we are going to have a whole bunch of new customers, but no one to take care of them, which brings me to my first observation. Failure to attract Millennials into the trades is financial suicide. The second observation: The differences that Millennials exhibit are exactly the right skills we need to keep us in business.

With that in mind, how can we attract, assimilate and retain the Millennials into our trades?

  • Attract is the front door of your company. It’s what you have to do to bring them in.
  • Retain is the back door of your company. It’s whatever happened that allowed you to lose an employee.
  • Assimilate means how well you keep people from coming through the front door and not going out the back door. If you don’t assimilate well, the back door is as wide as the front door and used just as often.


More than 2,000 people come through my employer’s training every year; many are Millennials. We also train over 300 vocational students every year; almost all of them are Millennials. I also have the pleasure of working for a company that employs dozens and dozens of Millennials in all kinds of positions, and let me tell you this — they are talented, motivated, full of ideas and totally capable of filling in all the potholes of technology that elude most of us Baby Boomers.

I have been quietly conducting a very random, non-scientific survey of the young Millennials who are part of the crowd and part of my company over the last couple of years to see if I can find out what attracted them to the business in the first place. As you can imagine, the responses have been all over the place. But this is what I think I am hearing.

No. 1 — Communicate: Millennials are outstanding at communicating and in using modern communication trends. It is very important for us to understand that if we are going to attract Millennials, we have to reach toward their communication paths.

Get yourself a copy of “Dancing with the Digital Natives,” edited by Michelle Manafy and Heidi Gautschi. This will catapult your understanding of how to reach this important group. It has some great information about marketing yourself and training Millennials. It’s well worth the money.

Next, jump on some of their websites to see what’s important to them. BuzzFeed is one of the places they get their news, and Elite Daily is one of the very popular websites for idea exchanges among that age group. They blog and they Yak. You can’t get them if you can’t talk to them.  

No. 2 — Use different channels: I find the Millennials I have talked with have been attracted to the trades through people, not through career or job choice. Which means you’ll have to find a different recruiting channel.

Social media is a great place to begin. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter will electronically connect you to people you would never have been able to reach. Communicate what you have to offer. What do the trades have to offer?

  • Good starting wages — often much better than wages for starting college graduates.
  • Four extra years of income and establishment in a company.
  • No student loans (saving on average about $80,000).
  • Good benefits.
  • Ability to work with their hands.
  • Opportunity to start working right away.

Remember that it is a two-way street. You have a vocation to teach them, and they have a whole spectrum of communication to teach you. You’ll find them invaluable, and you will enjoy the partnership.


Attracting Millennials is one thing. Keeping them is another. They watched their parents and older relatives lose their jobs during the recession to companies they had worked at for years, so their loyalty is in a different place.

Move from a company mentality to a community mentality. This is a group that is detached from institutions and attached to relationships. To Millennials, task is subordinate to relationships. Move from organizational to organic. From “top down” to “person to person.” Inclusive is more powerful than direction.

The way to assimilate is to make sure you listen to them carefully. To hear them. To understand them. I have always thought that humor is an excellent barometer of true feelings. Here are a couple of insightful bits of humor that Millennials wrote about themselves.

  • What kind of shoes do Millennials prefer? Ones that don't leave a carbon footprint.
  • Why do Millennials make great postal workers? They love pushing the envelope.
  • Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will wipe out the fish population.

Another way to assimilate is to consider in-house apprenticeship. Do your research on this, and you will find a possibility that is rich with reward. More and more small businesses are moving toward this approach. Google “in-house apprenticeship,” and you will be amazed at the transformational information that is out there.

Sow into their lives and agenda and you will reap a harvest of positive growth.


Employee turnover is expensive. According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), losing an employee and rehiring another is equivalent to six to nine months of an employee’s salary in order for the new employee to come up to speed. That could mean tens of thousands of lost dollars, not to mention the lost skillset.

Remember that Millennials have grown up with constant positive feedback, so here is some advice from Michael Hannon ( “Measure what's important — reward what you measure.”

Excellent advice. Chris Ceplenski of HR Daily Advisor goes further by saying: “There are two primary perspectives that exist when it comes to employee reward programs: Reward programs that are seen as a cost of doing business, in which case the goal is to minimize the costs. And reward programs that are seen as an investment, in which case the goal is to optimize the return on the investment.”

You don’t have to be an HR specialist to see which one the Millennials will take (or the Baby Boomers for that matter).

Invest in their career development. I have heard many contractors who don’t want to invest in career development because they are afraid that they will lose their employees once they have been trained. Take a tip from Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines. “If you look after your staff, they will look after your customers. It’s that simple. Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.” That is some outstanding advice.

Remember that Millennials have been raised with perhaps a different or deeper view of global concern than our generation. Demonstrate environmental concern by emphasizing recycling as an example. Or emphasizing environmentally friendly installation methods.

Consider VTO — Volunteer Time Off. This is where companies provide a certain number of paid hours per year for employees to volunteer in the community. It is terrific for the community and one of the best advertising dollars you will ever spend. A win-win.

So there you have it. A few thoughts about attracting, assimilating and retaining one of the greatest assets we have ever been handed.

I have heard from many of you about the previous article (October 2016, page 40) regarding this fascinating, imaginative, talented group of people called the Millennials. I would like to hear your further thoughts, ideas and stories as well.

Best regards and happy heating.

About the Author

Steve Swanson

Steve Swanson is the customer trainer at Uponor Academy. He actively welcomes reader comments and can be reached at [email protected].

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