The subject of manpower that is; locating, recruiting, training and retaining people in the construction trades, and other industries, seems to be one that is here to stay for the foreseeable future. In article after article in trade publications across the board, editors and columnists are blogging about the issue. There have been numerous articles, panel discussions, PowerPoint presentations, and the like, spread all over the country in venues as diverse as online forums to convention centers to lunch meetings at the local coffee shop. The main topic is how to generate more bodies interested in entering the trades.
A recent hot topic has been what to do about, for, or with the millennial generation since these people are the most obvious targets of recruitment. Some pundits say that the industry, or industries, must change their approach to hiring and training millennials, and further modify their business models to “accommodate” the new social interaction in which they live. That opinion seems to be shared by many who perceive these people as unable or unwilling to perform in traditional ways.
Simon Sinek, a British/American author and motivational speaker, recently said as much in an online interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU) wherein he blames everyone but the millennials themselves for the current lack of work ethic. He goes so far as to castigate corporations and corporate America and suggests that industry assume the role of parenting these young people to “make up for” the shortcomings of their own parents’ failures or whoever the blame of failure for teaching work ethic can be assigned. Personally, I feel it is giving away too much ground toward political correctness. Bending to the “new” societal norm is akin to abject surrender and doesn’t take much effort. Standing firm with what works does.
I am not suggesting that Mr. Sinek is completely off track. I’ve read a book he wrote called “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” and enjoyed his insights very much. I simply don’t believe that trying to change traditional business and labor models is a viable solution to the immediate problem of lack of manpower. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the labor market will correct itself. It has to. Government handouts and mommy’s basement will not do forever and “you want fries with that?” will wear thin.
Running a business, especially a contracting business in the construction trades, requires a top down leadership strategy; i.e. — boss, manager, foreman, etc., with clearly defined roles and a clear chain of command. Call it a militaristic structure if you want to, but it works. The work is not done by committee, it is done by leadership making decisions and the labor force carrying out those decisions. According to several recent articles, as well as personal observation, the prospective millennial does not seem to be capable of understanding, appreciating or operating within the “because I said so” millieu of the trades as they exist today. This is the crux of the problem, and this is what must be addressed.
It is not feasible for a foreman (or journeyman) to provide compelling information to a young apprentice when asking him or her to perform a task. While it is admirable to see someone with a healthy curiosity about things, it is decidedly not helpful to have to motivate that person and have deep, time consuming, discussions about simple and mundane requests to perform a task.
In order to appeal to the new paradigm of entry-level personnel, perhaps setting up a “team” structure for working around the attitudes and perception problems of the millennial recruit is needed. Involving apprentices on a base level and appealing to their sense of teamwork might just be the way to get them involved enough to understand the concepts of how a trade is taught and work ethic enabled. Not just having them work and learn the trade, but giving them a reason to want to. In reading and watching the various experts opine about the problem, one thing comes across loud and clear, the millennial recruit has expectations of making a contribution, an impact, to the company on some level. Tapping into that desire and nurturing while teaching the trade could be a good starting point.
The real problem, as it has been defined of late, is engaging the people in the first place. Immediate gratification, whether it is from upbringing or digital reflex, is the real issue here. Long term gratification, that of pride in learning a new thing or skill or accomplishing a job well, after working at it for a time, was once something that was innate in our society. Sadly, it no longer is. Developing strategies that can “hook” entry level people on learning and working at a trade should be a priority, rather than adapting to their attitudes about work today.
The team concept can establish a spirit or esprit d’corps with which the millennial can identify and that just might be what is needed to focus the recruit and engage him (or her) long enough for that work ethic to come to the surface. Smaller shops could do this better than the larger ones, because it’s easier to develop a sense of family with a smaller group, but it is something that any company can do. Tuning your workforce toward team effort (we already have crews anyway) might alter the perception of the trade work and entice more applications. Once you create the team mentality, your apprentices and other less seasoned people will be able to interact with your more senior staff in what they will perceive as a meaningful manner and with any luck, they will stay engaged long enough to become serious about keeping their job and getting excited about the trade.
While these ideas are by no means a panacea for what ails our labor force, it is a step in the right direction for engaging and retaining entry-level people today. Clearly, there is much work to be done and there is no time like the present to try a new approach. Anything we can do to fill the job gap is worth a try. To do nothing but wring our collective hands is not the answer.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected]