By last year, more than one in three American workers were millennials (adults between the ages of 18 and 34). In 2015, they surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of America’s workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. What’s really remarkable is that a disproportionate fraction of this group is between the ages of 18 to 24, meaning many are still in school. About 40 percent of the generation hasn’t even graduated into the workforce.  

Stereotypes characterizing this group are not always positive. But it also is the most educated generation in American history. As reported by Fast Company, the most recent Kauffman Foundation index found that nearly a quarter of all entrepreneurs are between 20 and 34 years old, and those with college degrees are starting businesses in unprecedented numbers.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, millennials are optimistic despite growing up through events such as Sept. 11 and the Great Recession. They are caring and community-oriented. 

For construction firms, millennials’ greatest asset may be their capacity to understand and utilize new technologies with ease. However, their parents tend to emphasize industries such as health care, computing and professional services. Construction is often not an economic segment that receives much attention, which partially explains the industry’s ongoing challenges in recruiting young people. In a 21st century economy, the goal is not merely to attract bodies, but to attract talent. 

To be successful, contractors must rethink their recruitment strategies. Firms that operate more like technology companies, emphasize teamwork and measure performance in non-traditional ways are more likely to attract the cream of this crop.

Perhaps frustratingly, this means viewing the workplace in new ways. Overtime is a good example. There was a time when Americans considered the chance to work overtime a blessing. But today’s emerging generation treasures work-life balance. Some of that is merely practical. Younger workers, whether white, grey or blue collar, need more flexible schedules in order to deliver young children to day care or school. Working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. may not accommodate those needs, inducing them to work in other settings.

Keep in mind, one of the characteristics of this generation is that millennials seek constant feedback regarding their performance, but they want to be measured differently. An internal survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (after an exodus of young workers from that firm) indicated that millennials prefer to have their productivity judged by work performed rather than by hours worked. Older generations seem to understand intuitively that the longer one works, the more one can accomplish. However, the younger generation doesn’t view matters in quite the same way. According to their logic, “If I can get the job done in six hours, why should I stay eight?”

For construction firms, measuring performance this way can be problematic. Health care administrators can determine how many beds a single nurse changed, university presidents can determine how many papers a faculty member has published and partners in law firms can see how many hours associates billed.

But construction is truly a team sport. Productivity is measured not in terms of individual accomplishment, but in collective achievement. One worker often depends on another to complete a choreographed set of tasks. In that world, flex time and six-hour days simply don’t work very well.

Construction team leaders can take a couple approaches to this dilemma. One is simply to attempt to bend the young employee to their will. This may work for a time, but probably will translate into elevated levels of turnover and retraining costs. Or, they could simply accommodate the current business model to the preferences of today’s younger workforce, but this probably would lead to frequent delays, cost overruns and unhappy project owners.

Perhaps the only conceivable solution rests with technology. Technology that renders the worker more productive may allow for increased flex time, engender more interest in the work and support higher retention. That technology also may produce greater precision, fewer delays and bolster recruitment of highly capable young workers who seek to be in an ultra-modern environment. But this technology also may prove expensive, which means that well-capitalized construction firms have the advantage over time.


Anirban Basu is chief economist of Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, visit abc.org.