As more Baby Boomers enter retirement, the need for skilled workers is increasing across the American economy. The construction industry is not immune. Add on the struggle with convincing young people that a college degree isn’t always the ticket to a good life and skilled trades are a viable career choice. How can the construction industry recruit good talent?

With millennials now well into their thirties with established careers, the construction industry should set its sights on the next group, Generation Z.

Gen Z, those just graduating through age 25, are different from previous generations. These are digital natives; they grew up as smartphones were becoming common in everyday life and certainly have always had access to the internet. Further, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was a foundational focus of their education. As a result, they tend to adopt new technology quickly and easily. 

The construction industry has much to gain by showcasing its evolutions in technology. With high-tech equipment like GPS and VR commonplace on most construction sites, it’s often the younger team members showing the old guard how to operate it. Gen Z is attracted to the technology on the job and the opportunity for their knowledge to be valued, which often stands out to prospective employers as a key point to attract Gen Z. But while its importance is significant, technology isn’t the whole story.

The Culture

Gen Z cares more about social issues and giving back to their community than any generation before them. They seek a career they can grow into, and coming of age during the Great Recession, they seek financial security and want to avoid debt. These attributes position the construction industry well for recruitment.

However, one key challenge remains the general perceptions of construction work. Despite the advances on today’s construction sites, Gen Z—and their parents—still perceive construction as physically demanding, trivial and even sometimes dirty or dangerous. Many don’t understand how today’s industry has evolved with technology, safety, unparalleled skill and the opportunity to contribute to something greater than themselves. All traits that appeal to Gen Z.

Wrought with stories about the recession and now the pandemic, most of Gen Z is searching for a sense of stability. When choosing a career, they’re weighing their immediate earning potential with the future growth potential of an industry. Having watched their parents struggle to pay off student loans, many in this generation are not interested in a traditional college education and the debt that comes with it. Unfortunately, those same parents often push their kids to enroll in college, as they view a degree as the only reliable path to success. So, attracting Gen Z to a career in the trades also requires overcoming the perceptions, fears and desires of their parents.

Seize the Opportunity

The construction industry has an opportunity to promote its good-paying jobs with sound benefits—and without the college debt—to bring Gen Z into the fold. Tout on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs, with the opportunity to learn directly from experienced tradespeople already in the field. Following completion of these programs, they can go to work as a fully trained journeyperson and earn a competitive wage complete with healthcare and retirement benefits. This “earn while you learn” mindset, combined with long-term growth potential, will appeal to this generation.

Further reinforcing a sense of stability, as Gen Z witnessed the world change throughout 2020, the construction industry was deemed “essential” during COVID-19 shutdowns. The world saw construction workers continue to go to work every day while many people didn’t leave home. Having watched so many businesses cut jobs and struggle to reopen, Gen Z has seen evidence for a new perspective on the “essential” careers that truly offer stability and opportunity.

One of the unique attributes of Gen Z is how socially conscious they are. They proactively seek out opportunities to feel that they are making a difference and creating positive change in the world. They want to work for companies that share this goal and their personal values. They expect business to stand for important issues and contribute to the greater good. In turn, companies can highlight their corporate social responsibility activities, such as volunteering with local organizations or supporting a nonprofit, as a recruiting tool. 

What’s more, the construction industry is uniquely poised to contribute to the literal growth of local communities. It’s unique in that workers can stand back at the end of a shift or completion of a project to see and touch their contributions. Then, they can watch the finished product become a beneficial asset for their community and quality of life for years to come.

To reach Gen Z, industries must meet them where they are. When executed well, social media can be an effective platform for reaching these young people. Additionally, outreach within schools, career fairs, community organizations and even through personal relationships will resonate with Gen Z. Companies and entire industries can showcase their work, their benefits and how they engage with the community. Many trade associations, including the Signatory Wall and Ceiling Contractors Alliance, at the national and local levels, are actively working to recruit this generation and reap the benefits of a robust workforce.

The construction industry will need Gen Z to fill the workforce gap in the coming years. Luckily, construction checks off many of the attributes this generation is seeking in a career. By appealing to their desire for well-paying, tech-savvy jobs that give back to the community, this group will become a force in the field.