Skip to content

OP ED: Construction workers of the 21st century

DJC300This column originally appeared in The Daily Journal of Commerce in Buildings Bridges and Roads
By: Mike Salsgiver

Mike SalsgiverOne cannot pick up a publication today without seeing something about the next generation of workers and the construction industry’s skilled labor shortage. The biggest post-recession challenge faced by contractors continues to be finding and retaining the best talent – and talent is sorely needed.

Today, nearly 60 percent of construction firms report having some difficulty finding enough skilled workers to fill key professional and craft positions. Skilled worker shortages can be contributed to policy, education, demographic and economic factors that have reduced the once robust pipeline for training new construction workers and have affected the entire chain of commerce.

With so many baby boomers retiring from the trades, the U.S. is going to need many more pipefitters, nuclear power plant operators, carpenters, welders, utility workers – the list is long. However, the problem is that not enough young people are getting that kind of training.

Quality, comprehensive craft training is fundamental to the development of a skilled workforce. In turn, a skilled workforce is essential to a productive and sustainable construction industry. Therefore, the future of the construction industry lies in our ability to recruit and retain the greatest amount of talent from the up-and-coming generations: the millennials and, perhaps more importantly, the Generation Z’ers.

Prior to the recession, millennials seemed to have set a “new normal” within the industry. A generation unafraid to speak their mind and repulsed by the status quo have been able to dictate what they want – from work environment to paid time off – to an industry that is not accustomed to being told what to do. The shackles of staunch traditionalism that for so long have characterized the construction industry were forced to break throughout the 2007 construction peak and the intense recession.

While millennials may have paved the way for an overhaul of the industry, it is more likely that Generation Z’ers – those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s – will have a profound effect on the future of the construction industry and the manner in which business is conducted. These emerging workers accept that we live in a 24/7/365, constantly connected world. The trade-off for them is a need for a less-traditional, more-flexible work environment. For traditional construction leaders, this may be tough to accept. But if those work practices aren’t accepted, our industry will lose the best and brightest.

Having grown up amid terrorism and a dire global recession, these children and teenagers are expected to be more cautious and more skeptical than millennials. They have more realistic expectations about career opportunities, realizing that they are not endless and that in-demand skills must be mastered. In many respects, Gen Z’ers have already proven themselves highly intelligent workers with valuable skills that are on par with (and sometimes exceed) those of their adult predecessors.

These are children of the crisis, and it shows in their outlook. Most of them say they are “stressed out” by what they see as a bleak economic future. So, where can we as an industry step in to demonstrate to these young people that our line of work is a viable career option for them?

Over the past decade, there has been a “university for all” mentality in education with an increasing demand for high school students to focus solely on college prerequisites, instead of electives such as the construction trades. However, many Gen Z’ers saw the millennials follow the “university for all” path and witnessed firsthand that a college education does not necessarily guarantee a good career or a steady income upon which to build a stable future.

In a recent poll, over 60 percent of Gen Z’ers responded that making “a lot of money” is important to them. While many Gen Z’ers intend to go to a traditional college, the lure of money and valuable skills training offered in our industry may be enough to appeal to their need for instant gratification and results. In fact, post-recession construction jobs often pay better than many post-college options, and a path into the highly-skilled trades is a lot cheaper than a four-year degree.

Also, many trade students can expect to graduate school with no debt and, if they graduate with a particular skill in a particular field, can likely make more than college graduates over their lifetime. In Oregon, the average wage of a construction worker is nearly $52,000 – 16 percent more than all other private-sector employees in the state. This is just another example of why our industry could appeal to this generation.

From high-tech tools to more elaborate building processes and materials, the craft professionals and supervisors of the new construction workforce must be more than just computer literate; they must be computer-proficient and technologically competent. As the most digitally gifted generation yet, we must harness the excitement that middle school and high school students have toward technology, moneymaking and entrepreneurship, and help them channel it into lasting careers.

CTE is reactive to the demands of an ever-changing economy and grounded in the belief that the skills and abilities that students need to succeed in college and careers are effectively identical. Helping them see the construction industry as a path to a well-paying job and satisfying career is a critical step toward meeting our future workforce needs. It will, therefore, become increasingly important for the industry to get involved at the middle and high school levels to get these eager children building skills at a young age.

Like much of society, the construction industry is changing at light speed. Besides computers, we are seeing the rapid integration of such technologies as virtualization, robotics, and 3-D manufacturing. Gen Z’ers will lead our industry into this new future.

We need to empower these Gen Z’ers to explore the skills they have and understand the kinds of lives they want to lead. If income stability and long-term career development are important to them, as they have demonstrated, then construction already offers those benefits. Through strong outreach and effective communication, we have a very real chance at recruiting an innovative and highly-skilled workforce to meet the industry’s future needs.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

To view the column online, please click here (DJC subscription required).

Share This Resource

Related Articles

Pavilion Construction, headquartered in Lake Oswego, Ore. is an AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter member and is proud to announce Brock Argyropoulos is named VP of Estimating...
Knife River Corporation (NYSE: KNF) recently announced the successful completion of its spinoff from MDU Resources Group, Inc. (NYSE: MDU). As a result of the...
Perlo Construction is pleased to announce Chris Gregg’s new role as president and Devin Koopman’s new role as senior vice president for the company. These...