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Age: The Age-Old Problem

Look around your job sites. Under the hardhats, baseball caps and welding hoods. How much grey hair do you see? It’s probably quite a lot. And that’s a good thing. That grey hair represents experience.

Your most senior workers have acquired some serious skills in their years on a wide variety of job sites. If they haven’t seen it all, they’ve seen close to 95%.

They’ve learned good safety habits. And their mature behavior on the job site sets a good example for your apprentices and other younger workers.

But that grey hair doesn’t come without its own set of risks.

Older workers, despite their expertise and safety training do have an increased likelihood of injury. The other risk is less obvious. But it’s every bit as (and maybe even more) debilitating. It’s part of a massive shift in the demographics of the construction industry and the US economy.

And that’s retirement.

While an injury might never happen—retirement will. But you can manage both of these risks before the shift hits the fan. And building knowledge capture into your normal routine can help.

A Cruel Wave

How long have we been talking about the Baby Boomer generation? This group (born 1946 to 1964) has been one of the single most influential forces in the American economy and workforce. But even when you clock out, time keeps going. And the Boomers now represent a significant threat to American business. According to numbers from the Social Security Administration and Pew Research, Boomers are reaching retirement age at the rate of nearly 10,000 per day.

You read that right.

Let that number sink in for a moment.

Construction occupations make up roughly 10% of the total labor force in the US. So, if we assume for the sake of simple math that the daily retirement rate is proportional, it means somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 construction workers will be reaching retirement. Every day.

Stop the Leak

Imagine you’re managing construction of a hydroelectric dam. One day, you show up on the site and you discover evidence of a massive leak. Naturally you’re going to figure out where the leak is and correct the problem. That’s just basic, right?

So when you have experienced, knowledgeable workers who WILL, at some point, leave your company doesn’t it make sense to try to stop that leak, too? While you won’t stop them leaving, you can limit the negative effects of their absence, i.e. the irretrievable loss of the knowledge and skills they possess.

In their book, Social Security Works, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson suggest somewhere between 20% and 30% of workers over 60 have “work limiting health conditions.” We all know the construction industry is hard on the human body.

It’s logical to assume those conditions probably appear earlier in veteran construction workers, which can threaten to push the retirement age even earlier.

However, a 2014 Gallup poll found that more than half of the Baby Boomers surveyed planned to work past the age of 65. That could be good news, as we’ll see shortly.

Regardless, the construction industry’s talent picture starts to look grim. So what can you do about it?

Toolbox Teachers: Train to Retain

Veteran workers have more technical knowledge. They’ve been doing it longer. And if you’ve been doing a good job with their training, they’ll understand the most current techniques and tools. So, here’s an idea: create Toolbox Teachers.

Capture that wealth of knowledge before it leaves your company forever. Here are some suggestions for how this might work:

  • Formal Responsibilities. You’ve heard the adage: “Whatever gets measured gets done; whatever gets rewarded gets done first.” Unless you make knowledge capture a part of your workers’ goal and performance management, it’ll never get done. You know it and I know it. When the time is right, get your HR team involved and let them help you figure out how to make it work. This would also include crafting a detailed job description and goals for the Toolbox Teacher.

  • Set Guidelines. While your veteran workers may have tons of knowledge, they may not all have the skills to organize that knowledge into a format that can be easily shared and readily understood. Help them be successful by providing some guidelines (see the sample at the end).

  • Document. Once your Toolbox Teacher completes the outline, it’s time to document. A PowerPoint slide deck is a pretty good choice. You can embed video, audio and images as well as charts and graphs. The speaker notes section lets the teacher enter as much information as is needed to explain a particular procedure or idea.

  • Trust but Verify. Then there’s that Old Dog/New Tricks thing. We want to believe our workers (especially the most experienced) always do things the correct (and safe) way. But we’re all human. So, once your Toolbox Teacher completes the outline, have your Safety and Risk Management people review it. Just to be sure.

  • Share. How you do this really depends on a variety of factors, including how big your organization is, the geographic distribution of workers and the computer/ network systems you use. If you use PowerPoint, you can simply house on a shared corporate drive or a system like Microsoft’s SharePoint. The training can be delivered live as a simple toolbox talk on a jobsite or as a more formal training at a corporate office. Either way, shoot HD video of the presentation using an iPhone or iPad and develop your own training video library. For a longer presentation, you might need a better quality camera and audio. It might even be worth bringing in a professional video crew. With the right skills and software (maybe available through your Communications department), a PowerPoint deck can also be turned into an .MP4 video using a program like Adobe Captivate.

  • Collaborate. Consider partnering with local trade or vocational schools. Experienced teachers may be willing to give teaching tips in exchange for having your workers be guest instructors in class or helping promote construction trades in high schools. Doing this allows your company and workers to give back to the community, while helping recruit and prepare new construction talent. As a side benefit to your veterans, it can even open doors for possible post-retirement work.

  • Translate. Many talented workers in America are native Spanish speakers and make up nearly 30 percent of the construction workforce. Try to make the materials you create available in both English and Spanish.

Organizing and Sharing Knowledge

  • Narrow the topic. People absorb knowledge better in smaller bites. Don’t try to cover every aspect of operating a piece of equipment or performing a task. Break big subjects into smaller parts.
  • Get to the meat. Develop 1 to 3 learning objectives to describe briefly what participants will learn by watching/reading the material. This will help develop the outline.
  • Build the outline. Follow a classic structure: Introduction - Tell ‘em what your gonna tell ‘em. Body - Tell ‘em. Conclusion - Tell ‘em what you told ‘em. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
  • Think about delivery. Will the material be used in a PowerPoint? A text document? A video? Consider learning objectives, in addition to timing and cost.
  • Test it out. Before sharing the material with the whole company, test it out with a few people and get feedback.
  • Keep it up-to-date. Revise as needed to keep the content current. Make sure the organization has someone who can curate the content and arrange updates after original authors have left.



This kind of activity could even present modified part-time or even full-time employment for older veteran workers who may be unable to perform physically demanding construction tasks, but who may demonstrate a knack for training and development.

Remember the fact that Baby Boomers may want to try to delay retirement? The role of Toolbox Teacher, even on a part-time or contract basis, could help that.

And one more thing, the role of Toolbox Teacher isn’t necessarily limited to your trade workers and craftspeople. Managerial skills and knowledge is every bit as valuable to retain.

Injury Time-Out

Ask any actuary. Older workers are more prone to injury than younger ones. It’s just a biological fact. They’re especially susceptible to soft-tissue injury. Worse still, the older the worker, the longer soft-tissue injuries can take to heal. But an injury doesn’t necessarily mean having a worker totally sidelined.

Studies have shown that injured workers are more likely to experience better health outcomes when a return-to-work plan is in place. A correctly designed program can also help the construction firm save money. Talk with treating physicians and nurses to determine if an injured worker is able to participate in knowledge capture efforts during his/her recovery.

Then, using the guidelines from the previous section and working with your Risk Management and HR teams, incorporate knowledge capture into your return-to- work strategy and develop a transitional job description.

Depending on the nature of the injury and duration of recovery, a recovering worker might need some assistance from an able-bodied co-worker.

In addition to aiding in your efforts to capture institutional knowledge, this approach helps keep the returning worker engaged in the workforce while maintaining skills.

Nobody’s Immune

Every firm in the construction industry is vulnerable to losing knowledgeable workers to retirement. That includes subcontractors you rely upon.

Consider partnering with key subs and encourage them to adopt similar procedures and create Toolbox Teachers. It can help them reduce likelihood of default due to lack of adequately trained workers.

And let’s not leave out equipment vendors. Every single day, construction workers use complex technical tools to do their jobs. From BIM software to robotic survey systems to excavators. Talk with your key vendors to help develop training around their equipment; they may even have libraries of materials your Toolbox Teachers can use to get started.

This can be a Win-Win-Win

Capturing and sharing the knowledge your veteran workers possess has plenty of upside:

1. Reduce lost time due to injury. By collecting vital procedural and safety knowledge and sharing it with less experienced workers, you can contribute to a safer workplace, thus reducing the likelihood of injury.

2. Contain workers compensation costs. When you reduce the likelihood of injury, you can help manage costs associated with on-the-job injuries.

3. Enhance retention and recruitment. By creating a library of training materials, your firm will be equipped with critical content to support an overall training program to help workers at all levels advance through your firm. A strong training program can help attract and retain employees.

4. Strengthen the industry. If you and your Toolbox Teachers partner with trade and vocational schools, you’ll help to improve the perception of the construction industry and contribute to recruiting efforts.

5. Increase employee engagement and satisfaction. This works for both your Toolbox Teachers and those benefiting from their knowledge. It’s especially true of injured workers or those who may have “work limiting health conditions.” You’ll be able to keep them engaged and productive in your workforce.

Construction workforces are strained. Older workers move closer to retirement every day and we struggle to attract new workers to the industry. If we can harness the knowledge of the most senior people, we can be in a better position to stem the negative effects of a diminishing workforce.

The Toolbox Teacher concept could be one effective way of retaining and transferring vital knowledge. And if it works, the benefits can be far-reaching: Your workers win. Your company wins. The industry wins.

About the Author

Gary Kaplan, CRIS, is the President of XL Catlin's Americas Construction team, and can be reached at


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