Bridging the Gap: Millennials in Electrical Construction

Millennials now outnumber all other generations in the workforce, out-populating baby boomers and Generation X. Ideally, their skills are going to drive construction and electrical contracting forward to meet the needs of tomorrow’s construction industry. However, recruiting and retaining these workers—not to mention managing them to their full potential—is a different kind of challenge.

One example where the millennial generation is having a positive impact is Pro-Cal Lighting Inc., a 4-year-old, family-run company in Vista, Calif., that was launched by a father and son. The son, Brian Morales, is now company president. The company provides design-build controls and lighting, including architectural installations and green-energy projects that feed off of the management and technicians’ innovative approach. Morales attributed the innovation and skills of the younger generation to helping make the company a success, while also helping usher electrical contracting into a technology-driven era.

According to workforce analysts, younger workers tend to be tech-savvy, fast learners and ready to embrace change in ways older generations aren’t as comfortable with. If done right, a contractor can leverage millennials’ skills to better navigate the evolving construction industry.

Bringing in a new perspective

For older companies, the transition may not be easy. Millennials are sometimes painted as being entitled or not hard workers. Neither generalization is true, said Barbara Jackson, director of the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Denver. (Jackson also is former professor of construction management at the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University.)

In Jackson’s experience, millennials work hard, but they follow their own time table. The entitlement stereotype may be an assumption based on their approach to careers. It starts with early expectations; some young professionals ask for titled positions early after their hire, something that isn’t going to happen at the pace they seem to expect. But Jackson said requests for titles such as “project manager” are based more on gaining learning opportunities than salaries or entitlement. They want to understand the big picture, the process around designing and planning a project, and why they are doing what they are doing. They also want to provide input where they can.

That might be to the advantage of contractors. New, innovative ideas will help companies keep up with the increasingly technology-driven world, and they may have ideas that the older generations simply couldn’t come up with on their own.

“They want a seat at the table,” Jackson said. “If you just give them a task list, that demotivates them. They tend to come to a job with enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm will fade. They want to jump in with both feet.”

Millennials likely want to see the design process in action, even if they are not participating.

The dissatisfaction rate in construction for young workers may be higher than it needs to be. Young people who say they aren’t satisfied with their construction industry job typically indicate they aren’t learning anything. When they make suggestions, those suggestions are shut down. One successful approach is to meet them part way.

“Have a project manager grab one of them and say ‘Come with me,’ and then take them to meetings, let them sit in the back of the room,” Jackson said. “I’m suggesting that contractors start to develop leadership, not just skill sets.”

By doing so, contractors can bridge a gap between the wisdom of the older generations and enthusiasm and innovation of the young people.

The millennial approach

At the Pro-Cal Lighting office, most who work in management sport a dress shirt and tie, are likely to have a college degree, are trained to work directly with customers, and embrace challenging projects such as fuel-cell power generator installations at Costco Wholesale locations and a color-changing lighting design and installations at the Coronado Bridge and the San Diego Convention Center.

The company makes innovation part of the approach for everyone, whether they are upper management, technicians or installers, and they expect employees to have some fun. Pro-Cal Lighting brings in food each day and offers corn hole and ping pong tournaments to work off steam. The company has brought in guest speakers to inspire and create passion and has provided seasons of life skill classes such as financial management and health training.

“We offer a very professional environment that can compete with the tech companies,” Morales said. “This isn’t a place where people are wearing jeans and T-shirts. Our project managers come on-site working with electricians in a professional manner. When you’re talking about the trade workers, there’s a sense of professionalism there also.”

This professionalism is important to the company. The goal is to provide a work place that fosters innovation especially since technology companies are stepping in to complete with the construction market for workers (such as IoT technology vendors).

The company has ground-up training so that everyone from technicians to estimators and project managers embrace technology and participate in project innovation. Thus far, it has retained all but one of its millennial employees since the company launched.

“Everyone has a part in making our company the leader in innovation and efficiency,” he said.

Keeping new hires engaged

A few key points make it easier for contractors to maintain a workforce that is diverse in age, gender or ethnic background. In some cases, young people are being hired as app programmers to come up with new ways to automate the process of what work is being done in electrical construction. Those individuals can do programming, and they can teach the older generation to use technology on the work site.

How millennials go about achieving what they want may differ from their predecessors, said Sabine Hoover, content director at FMI management consulting firm, Raleigh, N.C. She has found they are driven by a well-defined career plan, something that previous generations may not have had.

Young electricians from days gone by often learned from experience and some trial and error. They were put to work on a job site, and if they made a mistake, they got yelled at. They learned from that failure and were better electricians because of it. Hoover said that worked for them and they then climbed the ladder to journeymen, supervisors or managers, if they applied themselves, and luck was with them.

However, that’s not the way the older generation has raised millennials.

“Millennials were often raised in a culture of communication,” Hoover said. “A lot of them were coached by [their parents] that this is how you get from A to B to C. They’re looking for a culture with rich feedback.”

ECs most successful at retaining and leveraging the benefits of millennials follow a few approaches that are very different from the work environment of previous decades.

Giving feedback: Millennials want as much feedback as they can get from their superiors, not just once a year during formal reviews but on a frequent basis. They learn from communicating with those with more experience, and letting them know what they are doing right and wrong should be a regular strategy and part of an ongoing performance or mentor program.

“That means not just throwing cold water—screaming at them if they get it wrong,” Hoover said. It’s about discussing what they need to learn and work on to achieve their goals.

Mentorship: Many companies have established strong mentorship programs. These programs typically pair the most experienced workers with the new generation, allowing the new hires to shadow an experienced electrician or supervisor, learn during the work process and receive a daily understanding of what they can do to improve their work.

Creative workplace: Millennials tend to challenge the traditional operations at a work site or office. Many tend to expect to use digital information for an immediacy that could provide access to information with the touch of a finger on the work site as well as getting some work done from the comfort of their own home.

“Younger generations want to think of ways to do things more efficiently,” Hoover said.

Additionally, younger workers value their family life. Their spouse is also working, and they may have small children at home. The days in which they can be the last ones to leave the work site—never before their supervisor—may be over.

A seat at the table: Bringing the younger workers to the planning table is another incentive, Jackson said. Electricians today want to participate in meetings. They want to be part of the planning and other management conversations, and not only learn, but provide input where relevant.

“You really have to reassess where you keep old structures,” Jackson said.

A clear path to leadership: This will help new hires understand their role in the company and how they can grow. A contractor can spell out the incentives, for instance, communicate that staying with the company for a number of years will lead to a leadership opportunity.

Ultimately, the construction industry is changing, and it will rely on the latest generation to ensure it does that itself, rather than be taken over by another force—consider the way Amazon and other technology companies are stepping into the grocery sales space. Just as some technology-based companies may be redefining a basic industry such as groceries, there are also those looking at the automation of construction. The only way to stay in the industry as it changes is to be part of the transition, and hiring tech-savvy workers that think far beyond the standard box is going to have a big impact.

As such, it is important to provide a work environment that keeps the youngest workers interested.

“These young people will work to transform this industry, or they’ll leave it,” Jackson said.

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