Job hopping, remote working, and tech: How can construction retain Gen Z?

Shaped by social media, the pandemic and big tech, Gen Zs are entering the jobs market. But what do they want from the construction industry and what effect are these demands having on the industry as a whole? Lucy Barnard finds out

If starting a job in 2006 seems like a lifetime away to Enio Navarro Vanzi, an assistant at the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) office in Basel, Switzerland, it’s because it is.

Vanzi was born the year his mother, Romina Vanzi, IPAF head of regional development, started working at the organization, which represents the construction professionals, rental companies, manufacturers and training centers working with elevating work platforms and arial work platforms.

And, although the 17-year-old who is currently studying for his A-levels regularly helps out in the IPAF office, he is pretty sure that he won’t be staying with an employer for anywhere near that sort of tenure.

Image: Adobe Stock

“Job hopping is definitely a phenomenon that has been taking place recently,” Vanzi told the IPAF summit in Copenhagen in March at a session addressing the issues of attracting and retaining young people in the industry. “Young people are changing jobs more often. And of course, when you ask yourself why, you see that young people change jobs usually for advancement because they are economically rewarded for it.”

And Vanzi is not alone. Young people around the world are asking for higher wages and making it clear that they are not afraid to vote with their feet, frequently changing jobs in order to get a higher salary or a more rewarding role.

A 2023 survey of nearly 54,000 workers in 46 countries and territories by PwC found that 26% said that they planned to quit their job in the next 12 months – up from 19% a year earlier. Moreover, Gen Z - those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s – made up the largest proportion of those looking to quit with 35% of respondents in that age bracket saying they wanted to move compared with 31% of Millennials – those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.

For Gen Z, many of whom came of age during the pandemic-fueled Great Resignation, when tens of millions of workers simply left their jobs, and the virtues of walking out on an unrewarding job were documented by everyone from youtube influencers to Beyoncé, leaving a job, even after just a few months, is something to consider.

“Usually, a job change comes with a good raise,” Vanzi adds. “If you really want to keep those professionals, you should offer career advancements. And if you don’t, those young professionals that have great aspirations for the future are going to leave.”

For the construction industry, which is already facing a retirement crisis over the next five years due to its aging demographic and which is already struggling with thousands of unfilled positions, the issue of training and retaining fickle Gen Z workers, across all aspects of the industry, is becoming a make-or-break issue.

Employers across the construction industry report that even though they are trying hard to attract Gen Z workers, both recruiting and retaining them is proving to be a struggle.

Industry-wide staff turnover figures are hard to come by in a hugely fragmented and diverse sector dominated by small scale operators and one-man-bands. However, a telling study of one Lendlease site, Elephant Park in London, found that four years after construction work started, just 54% of the original workforce remained and, of the 46% who left their role, the median employee lasted just 1.2 months in the job.

Why is Gen Z job hopping?

For employers, low retention rates hit the company’s bottom line. Huge amounts of time and money are lost recruiting and retaining talent, much of which is never recouped through their work.

A 2023 poll of 1,401 contractors by US-based Association of General Contractors found that 88% of respondents said they were having trouble filling craft positions and 86% struggled to fill salaried posts.

To compensate, 81% of those surveyed said they had increased base pay rates over the past year while 44% said they were providing additional incentives or bonuses for both hourly craft and salaried personnel. More than two thirds of employers (68%) said the available candidates were not qualified to work in the industry and 33% said that potential employees could not pass a drugs test.

And employers are seeing other broad differences between Gen Z and their elders too.

In general, Gen Zs tend to be more aspirational and better educated than their forebears and to see the value in a good education. According to the US-based Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66% of Gen Zs have at least some college education while according to a 2023 Gallup poll, 83% of respondents in this age category say that higher education is either “very important” or “fairly important.”

Karin Godenhielm, CEO of Dinolift (left) chairing a session on Gen Z employment at the IPAF summit including Thibault Itzel of Genie, Enio Navarro Vanzi of IPAF, Joao Lourenco of Transgrua and Jennifer Roddis of Nationwide Platforms (l to r). Photo: www.photographybymatthewjames.com

For the construction industry struggling to fill dozens of the sort of well-paid skilled and semi-skilled craft positions which do not require a college degree, it’s a problem of perception.

According to the AGC, teachers are instilling in young people the belief that they can only be successful if they go to college and get an advanced degree while the US government invests five times as much in encouraging students to enroll in college as it does preparing them for careers in craft fields like construction.

“It’s time to rethink the way the nation educates and prepares workers,” says Ken Simonson, AGC chief economist.

As well as prizing a college degree highly, Gen Z workers say they also want their employers to invest time and money training them and for their work to feel meaningful.

“I think a lot of young people are looking for careers,” says Jennifer Roddis, one of the youngest ever training instructors at UK-based Nationwide Platforms and another speaker on the IPAF panel. “They are looking for progression and long-term development.”

Typically, construction, which as a whole is an industry with tight margins and short deadlines, lacks the time and money to put into employees and employee development that is available in other industries.

Nonetheless, employers say they are investing. According to the AGC, 41% of firms polled in the 2023 survey said they were initiating or increasing spending on training and professional development. Another 14% said they had invested in augmented reality or virtual training devices and 25% said they had increased the use of learning programs with strong online or video components.

Coming of age during the pandemic also means that Gen Z has grown up with a strong desire to have a fulfilled life outside of work. Curating images of an exciting and fulfilled social life on Instagram is important to many – and so is remote working. It is no coincidence that the sectors which are less able to offer remote work or have been slower to embrace it, such as construction, face some of the biggest skills gaps.

“Work life balance is really really important to a lot of young people looking for careers,” says Roddis. “Social media shows us the idea of a perfect life. A lot of young people aren’t willing to only work and have nothing else.”

According to the AGC 2023 Workforce Survey, 79% of respondents said that office workers in their company are required to report to an office full time while just 23% say workers can choose which days they work in the office.

Digital natives want to use tech

For Gen Z, the first generation to grow up using the internet every day as so-called ‘digital natives,’ being able to use tech in their day-to-day jobs is highly appealing.

According to employer branding specialist Universum, big tech firms Google, Microsoft and Apple are the most attractive employers for business students around the world.

Construction bosses are hoping that construction can harness some of the power of new technology in order to make jobs more appealing to the next generation.

The AGC poll found that 44% of respondents said they thought AI and robotics will positively impact construction jobs by automating manual error-prone tasks.

“The digitalization of jobs can help,” says Joao Lourenco. A commercial technician at Italian rental company Transgrua, who was also speaking at the IPAF event. “Being a taxi driver has a fairly bad reputation but being an Uber driver, that’s a little bit better. And that can be used – that change and that digitalization of the operators and all that is related to the job can be used to bring a refreshing change to our industry.”

Moreover, as well as new technology, Gen Zs are demanding that the companies they work for become more representative and inclusive.

“Our generation was raised in a very progressive society,” adds Lourenco. “For us, obviously, diversity is something good and something we need to have in everything we do in life because if we have different perspectives its obviously good for us, not only in what we are doing but to experience something different. I’m not always going to the same restaurant. I want to have Italian, Mexican, all the different flavors.”

Perhaps more than anything, beyond providing good pay and conditions, Gen Z also wants to have a sense of purpose from a job which goes beyond just earning money.

“The new generation is mostly looking for purpose more than a job,” says Thibault Itzel, a sales person at Genie, another of the speakers at the IPAF event. “They’re looking at the company values hoping they match their personal values. And of course, they’re looking at the company’s websites and social media posts as well. And they do ask those kinds of questions during job interviews. What kind of social project are you working on as a company? Are you volunteering somewhere? Do you have sustainability actions? It’s definitely something new.”

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