How to Make a Career In Construction More Appealing to Young Workers

26 September 2017

The construction industry is experiencing a severe labor shortage throughout much of the developed world. This is especially true with younger workers, who are not entering the construction industry in the same numbers as in the past. The results of this labor shortage are universally damaging to the industry. Construction costs increase as workers can demand higher wages and projects are more likely to be delayed, or even scrapped, because of a lack of skilled workers.

The workforce in the construction industry is getting older. By 2020, workers aged 55 and over will make up 25% of the US construction workforce, up from 19.5% in 2010, according to a report by Zurich, based on US Bureau of Labor statistics numbers. These older workers should be properly valued by employers as they are an invaluable resource of knowledge and experience, and with proper training, older workers can learn new skills more suited to the digital age. Employers should aim to create a multi-generational workplace that uses the complementary skills of workers of all ages to improve productivity and efficiency. However, this does not change the fact that there is a lack of younger workers entering the construction workforce. In the US, UK and many other countries, the number of young people entering the construction industry is not making up for the number of retiring workers. The result of this is a labor shortage in the overall talent pool, a situation that will get worse unless improvements are made to attract young people.

labor shortage

The catalyst for the current manpower shortage was the financial crisis of 2009. A report by
The Chartered Institute of Building in the UK points out that the construction industry is particularly susceptible to skills and labor shortages because of its cyclical nature. However, the damage wrought by the recession was much deeper and longer-lasting than that of a usual cyclical contraction. In the US, about 2 million workers lost their jobs in the construction industry and a lot of those haven’t returned, instead finding work in other industries. Young people, entering the jobs market for probably the first time, are understandably cautious about pursuing a career in an industry that underwent such massive upheaval only a few years ago. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make construction a truly appealing job for young people.

What are the issues and what can be done to fix them?

Construction is Boring – Many young people view a career in construction as an unexciting prospect. They have an image in their heads of what a construction worker does and they consider it monotonous, physically demanding and not for them. Anyone who’s worked in construction knows this is not the case, or at least doesn’t have to be. There are a wide range of roles relating to construction, including design, surveying, engineering and many different trades. Trades, in particular, like carpentry, roofing and plumbing, are experiencing a severe skills and labor shortage. This should be a solvable problem. Those invested in the construction industry need to make an effort to change perceptions of what a career in construction can look like.

Barriers to Entry – Young people entering the workforce have more options than ever before, so it is imperative that, as well as a career in construction being attractive, it needs to be achievable. Attending college is much more commonplace than in the past. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center found that 17% of baby boomer men and 14% of baby boomer women hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27% of millennial women and 21% of millennial men who have completed a bachelor’s degree. Young people have a higher level of education compared to previous generations and the construction industry needs to recognize this.

Construction needs to be portrayed as a viable alternative to college, as well as an attractive career path for graduates. Construction has a long tradition of apprenticeship, mentorship and traineeship schemes, but many of these were significantly rolled back as a result of the recession. Schemes like this are vital to the health of the construction industry and should be expanded to suit the modern labor market. Employers should also investigate using alternative recruitment strategies that can help identify potential workers as early as possible. Companies should have a presence in community colleges and high schools, as well as investing in social media as a means of reaching millennials.

labor shortage

Technology – Having grown up in the internet age, young workers expect technology to be an inherent part of their job. The construction industry has still not caught up with the digital revolution. Millennials can find this frustrating as they see work practices that they perceive as old-fashioned and inefficient. Technology, such as wearables, worker management software, cloud computing and advanced data analytics all have the capacity to transform the construction industry. Employers too often show short-term thinking, rather than focusing on the long-term gains. The construction industry needs to get better at implementing new technology into the workplace to entice more young people to enter to and stay, in the construction industry to counter the labor shortage.

Company Culture – Traditionally, construction work sites do not always have the best communication practices. In the testosterone-charged work environment of construction, quite often the only real communication young workers have with their older colleagues is being the subject of shouting and derision. This is obviously not the case in a lot, or most, work sites, but this practice needs to end completely if the construction industry is to become an attractive career path for a lot of young workers. Millennials are justified in demanding dignity and respect in the workplace and the construction industry is still lagging behind in supplying appropriate respect to new, young workers. There needs to be a more collaborative environment where young people feel that they fit in and there is a clear line of communication with management.

labor shortage

Women in Construction – If the construction industry wants to solve the labor shortage, encouraging more women to consider a career in construction is a major step. Women are hugely underrepresented in construction; Figures from The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT), now part of Unite, show women make up only 11% of the UK construction workforce and just 1% workers on-site. This figure is unacceptable and shows the lack of progress that has been made in this area.

No one is saying that this is an easy problem to solve as many industries suffer from similar issues of gender imbalance. The solution needs to be a comprehensive effort. Improving the company culture is one part of it, as is reaching young girls in schools, planting the seed that construction is a viable career path. It’s a process that needs long-term planning with government agencies and educational organizations. It may take a few years to see the results but it is clearly worth the investment of time and money. In construction, women are the largest untapped resource in the labor market and any progress made in this area has so many tangible benefits. You can’t properly solve the labor shortage in construction without going some way to correcting the gender imbalance in the industry.

Inspiring Entrepreneurship – The professional aspirations of millennials are different from previous generations and it’s important for employers to recognize that. A 2014 survey of millennials makes this clear. According to the survey, 67% of respondents said they aimed to set up a business at some point in their career, while just 13% said their aim was to climb the corporate ladder and one day become CEO. The construction industry can offer young people a path to fulfilling this goal. It is very conceivable that someone sets up their own business, like a contractor company, after a few years learning a trade and building up experience and contacts.

The construction industry needs to make it clear that a career in construction is not a life sentence, condemning a worker to a lifetime of hard graft, doing the same job for the same company for 50 years. Rather, it is an exciting opportunity to learn skills that can be applied in any number of ways in a diverse industry where there are many niches ready to filled by entrepreneurs with a plan and a bundle of enthusiasm.


As the great recession of the last decade recedes further into the past, young workers will come to view construction as the relatively stable career it has traditionally been. The construction industry needs to do a better job at tailoring its recruitment strategies to fit the demands of young workers. The company culture needs to be more appropriate for the age we live in, with a better gender balance being the most obvious remedy. Young workers need to feel there is no impediment to entering the industry with an entry path laid out clearly for those leaving high school.

In general, the construction industry has all the attributes necessary to attract a skilled and young workforce. It can be an exciting industry where cutting edge technology is combined with huge manpower to create incredible buildings. However, too often this potential is not realized because of old biases and a general sense of ‘This is how we’ve always done it’. This attitude needs to change if construction is to become an attractive career for young people, and the current labor shortage crisis can be reversed.

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Jenny Snook

Jenny Snook is content executive at GoContractor with the job of researching the latest health and safety trends in the heavy industry. Her past-experience includes the research of large museum collections such as the Louth County Museum, many from the industrial age.

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