Updated: Nov 8
This article was written for the Steel Erectors Association of America Connector Magazine, Winter 2022 edition. The article explains the challenges of construction employee retention from the perspective of advancement within a company and the industry and the need to be more flexible in offering a scaffolding approach instead of our outdated ladder approach.
Well Works Article - Strictly Vertical Mobility is Hurting employee Retention in Construction
With over 18 years of experience within the construction industry, I have seen it grow from faxed bids, digitizers, rows of 1" RFI binders, and renting out bid sets to advanced project management systems, tablets, cloud storage, clash detection, and drones. Most of my industry experience was in commercial General Contracting, where I worked from project engineering up to project management. Honestly, I loved these roles and saw endless opportunities to grow and advance in this role. While I became very proficient and effective at the processes (which can quickly become mundane and increase our risk of what we fear most in this industry, boredom), it was counterbalanced by the challenge of working with, managing, leading, and motivating people and the different teams. This was it; I found my lifelong career! Something I thrived in, enjoyed, found meaning and purpose, and could continuously grow, learn and advance within. Here is the kicker; my current role in the industry is far from project management and General Contracting. Why? Because of one rather large barrier: The wooden ladder, i.e., an outdated, fixed, vertical, and very linear advancement expectation for those working in the industry.
When recruiting, we boast about the wide pathways and opportunities within the industry. You can attend college or not and still become a CEO. Career options are endless and plentiful because we need so many people with different strengths, skills, and abilities to create and build the things we do. The problem starts on the other side of recruitment; retention. Once hired, all the different pathways and choices seem to dissipate as if the selection is definitive, and all that is left is this heavily worn path with the good ol' wooden ladder at the end waiting to be ascended. Some may find comfort in this rigid structure, but many others may find this constricting, intimidating, and claustrophobic. While our industry has advanced in many different areas, unfortunately, this wooden ladder is still heavily used. As an industry, to retain our current workforce, we have to consider upgrading the wooden ladder to something more flexible like a scaffold.
While I supported and respected my executive team, it wasn't a role I was motivated toward or could see myself in, and several of my colleagues felt the same way I did. I still wanted to advance, learn and grow because being stagnant or complacent isn't my nature. Still, I needed support, time, feedback, resources, training, and the opportunity to do this. But I, like many others, felt the pressure, insinuated expectation, and obligation that in order to continue to be of value to the company, industry, and my teams, I had to continue to ascend the overcrowded wooden ladder. And that if I didn't, I would be at risk of career stagnation (in growth and in pay). So I found myself stuck. I couldn't move outward to reach those skills I wanted and needed (and be compensated as such); I didn't want to go down the ladder (demotion and humiliation); I couldn't stay where I was (stagnation), and I didn't want to move up. I had one option left; exit the ladder altogether.
I will make an educated guess that 26 to 40-year-olds likely have the largest impact on our current industry's retention stats and are at the highest risk of leaving, jumping ship, or "reshuffling." You have probably noticed that these age groups are our "Millennials" and "Xennials." These generations, frequently described as "entitled," are often criticized for not being as loyal to companies as older generations, while in reality, 55% are simply disengaged at work1. What is frequently seen as entitled may be confused for indifference, "and indifferent and entitled are not synonymous. Many millennials likely don't want to switch jobs, but their companies are not giving them compelling reasons to stay"2. While several "incentives" have been implemented based on assumptions of what we think would compel them to stay, we still end up frustrated and perplexed as to why we still have a high turnover. Ping Pong tables, fancy espresso machines, and high-tech gadgets may be some glitter to attract talent initially, but it is not the gold that keeps them put. "A striking 87% of millennials rate 'professional or career growth and development opportunities' as important to them in a job"3. If these opportunities are not apparent, supported, offered, or available within their current companies, they will leave in search of them elsewhere. And while millennials may be more vocal, internal mobility and career development opportunities increase retention and benefit all age groups within the workforce. "94% of employees say that they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development"4.
Replacing the Wooden Ladder
Consider remodeling or updating growth pathways, opportunities, role value, and compensation packages offered and communicated to employees. We need strong, competent, and skilled people at every level of our industry to successfully design, bid, and build our projects. While yes, executive roles are critical, without skilled labor and middle managers, these roles largely become obsolete. And while we should not cease the development of future executives of our companies and industry, this should not and cannot be our sole focus regarding advancement, compensation, training, development, and feedback. Some foremen want to be the best foreman they can be, they don’t all want to be Supers. This may mean they want to build more skills to be the best version of themself at that level. Or even explore or bolster their skillset in a parallel role within the same company (internal mobility). Keeping respected and trusted individuals within the company is still more cost-efficient and cost-effective than having to train someone new on the company's processes, culture, and values. Construction companies with 100 employees "could have turnover and replacement costs of $660,000 to $2.6 million per year"5. Odds are, the majority of us don't have training or recruitment budgets anywhere near this amount to compensate for this retention loss.
Allow employees to define and build their own skills, pathway, and advancement plan. While certain training and skills are critical and required for specific roles (Safety, Stormwater, Apprenticeships, etc.), many other topics, skills, experiences, and knowledge are also needed to succeed in our industry. Instead of the companies assuming what is helpful or motivational to each individual and role, consider allowing individuals to submit "growth potential" opportunities and explain how it adds value to the company or their teams. At this point, you have the flexibility to build and provide the training in-house, outsource or subcontract it or provide a monetary and time allowance for the individual to earn those advancement skills on their own. This is a great opportunity to avoid stagnation or boredom within a role and allows endless growth opportunities for individuals while being supported and encouraged by their employers. Additionally, the company gains valuable insight, perspectives, and feedback from all levels that could result in a competitive edge within the industry.
A word of caution; Use training and development as a reward, not a punishment. If people do something wrong, they need feedback, not training. Training is an expensive and ineffective discipline tool. When you mandate someone be at training, especially as a punishment, learning transfer (how much usable information you get from a learning event) significantly declines along with their motivation to attend any following training and development opportunities.
1. Gallup, Inc. (2016) How millennials want to work and live. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238073/millennials-work-live.aspx
2. Gallup, 19
3. Gallup, 46
4. Spar, B., Dye, C., Lefkowitz, R., & Pate, D. (2018). Workplace learning report (2018 ed.). LinkedIn Learning.
5. McFeely, S., & Wigert, B. “This fixable problem costs U.S. businesses $1 trillion.”Gallup (2019), https://www.gallup.com/workplace/247391/fixable-problem-costs-businesses-trillion.aspx