It has become increasingly challenging to attract millennials to construction. For the young person who has grown up with video games, smartphones and other gadgets, high-tech is cool tech, and construction is perceived as low-tech, dirty and dull. Many of these perceptions are erroneous, as modern construction can be as challenging and as engaging a profession as a young person might aspire to, but without action, the construction industry faces a grim workforce. What’s a business owner to do?

Engineering education has faced a similar recruiting problem. Students in the United States and other affluent countries want to go into finance, medicine or law—anything but engineering. A part of the solution to this problem in engineering has been to reinvent the culture of engineering and engineering education by telling new stories about the field. For example, talking about an engineering education built on joy, trust and courage has been useful in bringing about change and making engineering education attractive to millennials. What if construction were to take the same approach? What new stories can be told?

Construction Is Vital
Modern research in human motivation starts with purpose. Why is construction important? For most, construction is a first step in creating homes, workplaces, highways, bridges and transportation infrastructure that makes all aspects of modern life possible. To use a music metaphor, construction is the bass line or rhythm of modern life, yet it is largely unsung in public.

Construction Is Cool
For a long time, making stuff has been considered “low class.” The whole modern notion of liberal education remains infused with this status bias, but the good news is a reversal is under way. 3-D printers, maker spaces and a sense that using one’s hands is something that young people can, and should, do is catching on.

Construction Is Epic
One of the innate benefits of working in construction is the grand scope and scale of foundations and the structures they underlay. A computer or a website is a puny little device or artifact compared to even the smallest of structures. By emphasizing the grand scale of construction, the industry can appeal to the millennial generation’s desire for significance and lasting contribution.

Construction Is a Team Sport
Several years ago, research by Russ Korte, now at Colorado State University, showed that the single most important variable in successful transition from school to work is connectedness. Construction is a team sport and the best crews have the best teamwork. Emphasizing the importance of collaboration in construction and using it to bring new workers on board in creative ways can lead to new hiring advantages for the industry.

The Motivation for Construction Can Be Intrinsic
A few years ago, famed business writer Dan Pink wrote a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us” in which he summarized research and corporate best practices on intrinsic motivation. High-tech companies such as Google use intrinsic motivation theory to attract throngs of new employees through an operating system that works on trust and employee initiative. Surprisingly, fear of threats and love of rewards are ineffective in motivating employees, and new techniques based on trust and honoring employee initiative are becoming the norm. These techniques of intrinsic motivation can be adapted to more traditional settings. When this is done, it is often surprising the ways in which employee initiative can lead to both continuous and transformative organizational change.


David E. Goldberg is president of the nonprofit Big Beacon, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and co-author of "A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education." For more information, email deg@bigbeacon.org.