Generational Differences in the Construction Industry

  • Christopher Imbeau
  • Marketing Director
  • Rafn Company

Much has been written about how younger generation(s) in the workforce like to do things differently and how “more experienced” generations are resistant to change, but do those generalizations hold true in the construction industry? We talked to a variety of our staff across the generational spectrum to find out.

We found that people spend similar lengths of time at the companies they have worked for - 5 years on average. Also, the average number of positions held in a career is 5. We did have to extrapolate out the data for our younger staff to estimate these numbers, however if we factor in the low historic turnover at Rafn, that may increase the average number of years per company!

People gave very similar reasons for getting into the construction industry. Words like satisfaction, gratification, and collaboration, as well as the idea of accomplishment at the end of the day. A millennial staff member sums it up nicely by describing "the satisfaction you get once you have accomplished something difficult". Reasons for staying in the construction industry range from the boundless opportunity to problem-solving challenges and variety. Although the words used differed across the generations, the themes of collaboration and creativity were pervasive.

We discovered more similarities than differences when exploring attitudes towards the construction trades, but each with a slightly different take. A Boomer notes that younger generations appear to believe that the tech industry pays more and has more opportunities. Whereas a Gen X'er has seen a societal shift towards recognizing and valuing the skills and craftsmanship of the trades. And a Millennial has experienced people being nicer, although this has come on slowly. Each seems to point to an ever-expanding appreciation for the skill and work of the construction industry, though perhaps not quite yet on par with a university education and white-collar job route.

When asked "what philosophical change has had the biggest impact on the construction industry?" we finally heard divergent answers. One staff member noted the move from adversarial relationships to project team collaboration. Another talked of the acceptance of the need for energy-efficient buildings "which has accelerated the philosophy towards actual design and implementation of innovative systems". And yet another shared the increased focus on creating buildings that are inclusive to all people through ADA considerations.

Not surprisingly, the question “what technology has been the biggest game-changer over a person's career?” revealed vastly different responses. The Boomers were most impacted by the advent of electronic spreadsheet programs that came about in the 1980s starting with Lotus 1-2-3. Gen X'ers found increased productivity and connection through smartphones starting in the early 2000s. And Millennials said streamlined information sharing and mistake reduction through the more recent adoption of electronic construction plans.

Asked "what is the greatest attribute a person needs to be successful in the construction industry", answers again complemented each other. Themes of calmness, patience, and communication were echoed by everyone. A Boomer hit on all aspects by saying "if you have patience and can stay calm, listen and figure out a solution to the problem, construction can be very rewarding".

Our final topic is the ever elusive, and sometimes divisive, work/life balance, and here we seem to fall more in line with societal norms. Our Millennials have seen the negative results of spending life at work from their parents and prefer to shy away from that, trading less career advancement for more time with friends and family. Our Gen X'ers are more pragmatic, learning to ask for help to get work done efficiently so that they can succeed in their careers as well as maximizing their time at home to raise their families. Finally, our Baby Boomers would work all night to get more done on their project but realize the toll it takes at home. They have come to realize the need to force themselves to shut down for the day and go home at the appropriate time because the job will be there tomorrow.

Maybe the most striking differentiation between generations came from the length of responses to our questions. The average from Millennials was a concise 13 words while Gen X’ers elaborated slightly offering 21 words. But Baby Boomers expounded using 66 words on average! We may have our differences, but that is what makes us better together.

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