Turning brain drain into knowledge transfer

One of singer and song writer Bob Dylan’s most infamous songs, “the times they are a changing,’” could certainly be applied to today’s workforce. These words especially hold true for the long-held beliefs about older workers. People are working longer nowadays; and not just because they have to do so. That is music to the ears of those of us in the construction industry who have been losing sleep over the skilled labor shortage and brain drain that occurs when employees retire. abstract brain model

According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), one in five workers in the construction industry is age 55 or older. So then, we can easily see how retaining at least some of these workers could be beneficial to our industry, where the employment rate is expected to continue to grow into the 2020s. According to the BLS, the construction industry is projected to grow ten percent by 2024, making it one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy.

The issue is not the number of available workers.  Population data suggests there will be plenty of workers from which to draw, with 75.4 million millennials – those currently 19-35 years old – surpassing the roughly 74.9 million that make up the baby boomer generation, aged 51-69.  In the next several years, construction companies will be increasingly reliant on younger workers to fill their open positions, making the availability of workers with the necessary construction skills and experience a significant concern.

The construction industry as a whole is reaching a dramatic shift with our departing retirees to younger replacements. This article examines the challenges and benefits that these ongoing generational shifts will have for the construction industry and offers strategies for the transfer of critical knowledge and expertise to the younger generation of workers that will make up the majority of the industry’s workforce in the coming years.

Companies that leverage generational diversity will be better prepared for workforce challenges
Countless articles have been written about workplace tension, resulting from generational differences. Avoiding generational conflict in the workplace is not always possible. However, companies that take advantage of their generational diversity by developing strategies for adapting to a younger workforce and transferring the knowledge and skills their more seasoned workers possess will be better positioned for the strong projected growth in the construction industry. What often gets lost in the conversation about age-related issues in the workplace is the fact that both generations bring a lot to the table. Baby boomers have a wealth of experience in the industry to share. Millennials, meanwhile, bring new technologies and a strong desire to discover new efficiencies.

Strategies for transferring the industry knowledge and expertise boomers possess

There are ways to capture the enriched knowledge of older workers as they approach retirement.

  1. Have a knowledge-transfer team. The knowledge-transfer team can consist of the younger employee in the company with the soon-to-be-retired employee. During this time, the younger employee can ask job specific questions of the older employee. As the older employee is working on a project, the younger employee can shadow him/her and eventually take on the responsibility from the older, soon-to-be retiree.
  2. Many construction companies are preparing for the loss of older workers by establishing a form of apprenticeship, in which the most experienced, older worker is shadowed from task to task by the younger worker with the same skill set needs. A departing employee may be asked to put together a detailed manual that lists procedures for the younger employee to use as a reference in the future, if needed. As the departing employee list procedures and details for the younger worker, he may list details that the younger “apprentice” was never exposed to.
  3. Companies may ask or think about the retired worker to return to the company on a part-time basis. This can confirm the retiree’s real value to the company, its mission and its new workers. It can also help the retired worker feel as if they still possess a great deal of knowledge. The younger employee may feel they are learning from an expert, with “hands on” learning instead of theory from a book.
  4. Some companies are developing mentoring programs. With so many baby boomers on the cusp of retirement and with so many younger workers joining the ranks of the construction industry, there is an unprecedented – but fleeting – window of opportunity for older workers to use mentoring to leave the industry stronger.

Mentoring is going to become very important for the future of the construction industry, especially as a means of transferring important knowledge and skills to the younger workers coming into the industry. The more experienced workers have significant institutional knowledge and experience in which younger workers can benefit. However, if they’re not willing to pass knowledge down, it’s lost. It is vital for our industry to move forward with mentoring relationships so that we’re not reinventing the wheel and operating efficiently. Mentoring also benefits the individual and can lead to better retention of quality workers. By fostering such relationships in the workplace, younger workers are able to navigate the industry more easily in their early careers and are often more comfortable asking questions, making them more likely to stay with the company.

Age diversity and generational shifts offer unprecedented opportunity for the industry

While generational differences in the workplace can lead to conflict, smart companies find ways to leverage these differences to their advantage, developing strategies that include:

  • Embracing new technologies and allowing younger workers to use them where possible to discover new efficiencies and improve processes.
  • Transferring the wealth of knowledge and expertise to younger workers who will soon comprise the majority of the industry’s workforce.
  • Offering benefits and implementing workplace practices that appeal to the millennial generation.

As the older generation of construction workers leave the jobsites, let’s not let their knowledge go to waste. All contractors should implement knowledge transfer strategies so their younger successors can put their energy and restless innovation to work and sustain the Boomers’ proficiency that has made the construction industry in the U.S. the best in the world.

By Mary John, Human Resources Coordinator, DeLeers Construction, Inc.

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