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Solving the professional staffing shortfall by attracting and retaining top talent

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Today’s construction industry struggles to attract and retain professional staff necessary to meet the demands of today and into the future. The shortfall spans across the staffing needs of Construction Managers, with a particular shortfall in experienced field management (Superintendents). This creates a war for talent with the best staff often lured by the highest bidder to the wrong company for short term, unsatisfying tenures.

Where are we?
A recent survey conducted by AGC and FMI concluded that 44% of construction leaders identified their limited supply of field supervisors as a top risk for 2019 and beyond.

Let’s look at the demographics of an individual $1B contractor based in New York City. First, note the breakdown of total professional staff and compare that to the field management staff (superintendent, assistant superintendent, senior super, etc.).

CONSTRUCTION WORKFORCE SHORTAGE - chart of generations in the labor force

If you don’t currently have nearly 60% of total staff in the millennial cohort just yet, you are certainly on your way there. While 57% of the staff are of the millennial cohort, a disproportionate 37% of those millennials chose a superintendent career path. When we look at the baby boomer contingent of the superintendent track we see that nearly a quarter (23%) of our most experienced field supers are +/- 10 years from retirement.

Now, let’s explore the millennial cohort a little more deeply, as shown in the third chart above.

As you can see, approaching twice as many millenials are in project management positions rather that field management. This trend will not satisfy the needs of the future or are we poised to capitalize on learning opportunities from the more experienced Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers heading towards retirement.

How did we get here?
The current workforce shortage has developed over a long period of time and involves a variety of factors which alone might not individually instigate a crisis, but when combined create a perfect storm:

  • Low Supply due to Recession: Many worker were laid off in the economic downturn of 2008 and having found fulfilling careers elsewhere, they are disinclined to pivot again back to construction.
  • Low Supply of young talent: Construction is viewed as a difficult business with long hours, challenging work-life balance with low margins and lots of risk. We are not attracting the best young talent particularly when competing with internet celebrities, teenagers and young adults making million blogging on their couch or making YouTube videos.
  • Low supply of experienced talent: As the Boomers and GenX’rs age out, they leave with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Are we effectively passing these lessons on the younger generations?
  • Low supply of field supervision:The younger cohort seems less interested in a path through field supervision. Project Management appeals as more cerebral and providing a clearer path to success.
  • High Demand: Usually construction is cyclical. Right now we’re experiencing a bubble of many market sectors heating up at once: Multi-family residential; Senior/Assisted Living; Healthcare; Technology; Historical Restoration; Leisure & Entertainment; Commercial Office Space; Airports; Weather-related rebuilds; and Infrastructure all at once.

What results are we seeking?
Both the workforce shortage and the generational challenges mentioned above have been widely discussed the recent years. However the severity of this problem, as it specifically relates to construction, threatens to cause many downstream economic impacts. This is why it is imperative that we move quickly from a state of awareness to a state of action on this topic.

How do we attract, retain and develop a sustainable pool of talent, specific to each CM’s unique culture?

Step One is understanding your baseline. How engaged is your current staff in your unique company culture, mission and values? A 2018 Gallup Study on Employee Engagement concluded that:

  • “Organizations that are the best in engaging their employees achieve earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors.”
  • “Those in the top quartile of engagement realize substantially better customer engagement, higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents, and 21% higher profitability.”
  • “Engaged workers also report better health outcomes.”

In order to engage the full potential of our talent we first must to understand what is important to them, what the industry needs, and how to marry these two interests to formulate an overall solution. In April, 2019, AXA XL’s conducted a workshop including many of its top construction customers to develop ideas and solutions to these challenges, relative to each generational interest. The raw results are below:

What does each generational cohort care most about?

MILLENNIALS GENERATION X BABY BOOMERS
Culture Autonomy Succession
Work Smart and Hard, not Long Authority Stability
Training/Education/Professional
Development
Performance-based Incentives Legacy
College Debt Assistance Security Mentoring and Educating
Social Justice Responsibility Hard Work, Dedication, 
Perseverance
Meaningful Work Loyalty/Longevity Structure
Making a Contribution / Impact Predictability
Career Path Vision and Clarity,
Path to Advancement
Relationships (face-time,
direct interactions)
Continuous/Ongoing Feedback Reliability
Technology Respect

What does the industry need from each generational cohort?

MILLENNIALS GENERATION X
BABY BOOMERS
Enthusiasm Leadership (and recognition that
they are the emerging leaders)
Open mindedness about
the younger generations
Diligent Work Build Strong Teams of Employees
and Peers
Wisdom
Patience Delegate with Trust and Guidance
Mentorship
Loyalty Knowledge (and a system
for extracting)

How do we satisfy both goals for a positive end result?

MILLENNIALS GENERATION X BABY BOOMERS
Focus on the Individual Encourage Leadership Foster Mentorship
Provide transparency in
career path
Align goals with staff supporting
them
Recognition of contributions
Encourage patience on career
advancement
Accept and trust millennials Performance Metrics;
recognize output
Internships at HS and college
levels
Engagement in bigger picture
concepts and strategies
Deliver training to younger staff
Provide options for various growth
paths that leverage individual skills
Exposure to strategy and decision-
making at exec/c-suite level
Transparency & communication
Continuous performance feedback
w/ specific accountability
Structured program to transfer
knowledge and experience
to next-generation
Integrate technology and
capitalize on the digital-native
advantage
Support and encourage culture
shift
Acknowledgement of contributions

Without much detailed analysis, we can easily see a symbiotic relationship between the needs and wants of each generational cohort and the current demand for professional management staff. For example, the Baby Boomers’ desire to mentor and secure a legacy pares nicely with the millennials’ desire to be mentored and learn from the pioneers who came before them. The millennials’ interest, affinity and aptitude for technology pares nicely with some Baby Boomers’ blind spots in that area. Generation X’s task is to recognize and embody their role as the next leaders, and leverage that position to bridge the cultural and interpersonal gap between the other two generations. In all cases, patience is a virtue, and open-mindedness is essential.

In summary, rebooting our talent pool of construction management professionals starts with engagement at all levels, pursuing and developing talent that aligns with your company’s unique culture, and binding generational cohorts for an overall result that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Contact the Authors:
Rose Hoyle, PE, CRIS
Strategic Operations Manager for Risk Engineering
North America Construction, AXA XL, a division of AXA
(336) 501-4701

John Alicandri
President SphereNY
85 5th Ave Suite 1201, NY, NY 10003
(212) 835-2301

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