The Future of the Construction Industry: In an Industry with a Reputation for Dirt and Low Pay, Where Will We Find the Leaders of the Future?

Ulf Wolf

April 1, 2013

We are not getting any younger. The day will come—sooner for some than others—when we have to hand over the reins of our company to… well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

If you own and operate your own construction company, chances are that you find yourself on the far side of 50. Chances are, too, that you have given some thought to the question above and are keeping an eye on recruitment—especially of younger men and women—not only into your own organization, but industry wide. There is a perception that these days we do not see enough young people choosing our industry as a career. This concern brings up questions about not only who will run your company after you retire, but who will lead the industry.

A Boring Industry?

Is construction as an industry less exciting or attractive than, say, advertising or architecture? Less glamorous than the attorney’s office? Less prestigious than the medical field?

The questions have two answers: In the public’s view, working in construction and related trades means “holding up a SLOW sign by the side of road construction” (to quote Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction, Inc., in Illinois). Those who actually do work in construction, where no 2 days are alike, see it as every bit as exciting as, and probably more rewarding than, advertising or lawyering (though perhaps not as prestigious as putting “M.D.” after your name).

<span ‘letter-spacing: -.1pt’>Although the construction industry is embracing advanced technology—e.g., Building Information Modeling (BIM), estimating software, integrated management and reporting platforms, and instant digital communication between field and office—the public at large, including today’s high school and college graduates, is unaware of how this work is becoming cutting edge.

Attracting the College Graduate

Why should a college graduate look to construction as a career?

“I think college students should follow their talents and ambitions,” says Greg Smith, vice president at Mowery-Thomason, Inc. in California. “But construction would be a good choice, since the work cannot be outsourced. It can be a very good career for ambitious young people who are not afraid to work.”

Tom Clerkin, president of Ceilings, Inc. in Pennsylvania, concurs: “Our industry is a high-salaried environment conducive to college graduates both in the office and the field. My company currently has apprentices who are college graduates.”

“Construction is becoming more and more technical by the day,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. in California. “Also, construction is always changing. If you are someone who likes variety, then the construction industry might be a good choice for you… Colleges have offered a construction management degree for the last 10 to 15 years,” DeHorn continues. “Some of the major general contractors throughout the United States are finding their workforce in these colleges.”

Adam C. Navratil, vice president of operations at J&B Acoustical, Inc. in Ohio, concurs: “I think that there is plenty of opportunity in the construction industry. While the economy is still slow, the need for tech-savvy employees will continue to grow as we move forward.”

“I think college graduates should consider a construction career,” says Chuck Taylor, “because the baby boomers that currently run this industry are approaching the end of their careers, which will leave many large holes to fill.”

“Today, many universities offer degrees in construction management,” says Eric R. Peterson, president of Dayton Walls and Ceilings, Inc. in Ohio. “In most cases, they partner with local construction companies to provide co-op opportunities for their students. This way, a graduate enters the workforce with a background that enables him or her to be productive almost from day one. I know; I have two such employees in my office… As for a career, most people in the construction field are very passionate about their jobs and their companies. At the end of the day, they have built something!” Peterson adds, “Lastly, in our industry, compensation and benefits are attractive even at the entry level.”

Brittni Daley-Grishavea, chief financial officer at Daley’s Drywall and Taping in California, also sees construction as a viable college graduate career choice. “Construction is one of the most interesting industries today,” she says. “You will never do the same project twice, and each day presents new challenges and opportunities.”

Richard Huntley, president at WeKanDo Construction in Puerto Rico, also stresses the challenging side of the industry: “Construction is still a fun and interesting industry, with no 2 days the same. You’re never bored with it; each job has its own challenges. Also, building things does give you a sense of accomplishment. Recently, we have worked some very interesting jobs, the kind that not only impacted our company, but other trades, and the island itself. Very fulfilling.” Huntley adds, “I have young kids, 4 and 2, and it’s a great feeling to tell them about what we’re doing, and to show them the buildings we’ve completed as we drive past—a real sense of accomplishment, a great feeling.”

“The way construction has changed over the past 10 years, I think that a person with an interest in construction should enroll in college programs that specialize in construction science and  technology,” says Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane and Sons, Inc. in Mississippi. “It’s also important to note that our starting salaries are competitive with other industries.”

“The many technical aspects to both equipment and construction procedures these days would certainly provide the college graduate both opportunity and challenge,” says Roger Olson, president of Sig Olson and Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota. “Also, there are more construction management positions available than ever before.”

In other words, a technically challenging, never-boring field that provides a deep and personal sense of accomplishment would be a good career choice for any college graduate.

The High School Graduate

What about those who choose not to attend college? Is there a career path for them in construction? Can they now, as in days past, start at the bottom and work their way to the top without a college degree?

“This is exactly the path I took,” says Smith, “and I believe that path still exists. Starting at the bottom means starting as an apprentice to acquire the valuable experience that can only be had in the field. However, those coming through the field ranks into management will have to learn the critical thinking skills the college folks obtain in school.”

“I believe they can,” says DeHorn. “However, I think it is getting harder and harder to do that each year. Today, there are so many facets to our industry that you need quite a few good people supporting the person at the top, and many of those have a higher education.” He adds, “I would not recommend starting at the bottom and working your way to the top without a degree. I would get the degree and then start at the bottom. Coming out of college and going into an entry-level construction job can be economically hard; however, if you are serious about this effort, you won’t stay at the bottom very long.”

“You can start at the bottom in field operations,” agrees Clerkin, “and work your way to a foreman or superintendent position, or at the bottom in the office and potentially work your way to ownership. However, I do not believe, in this day and age, that you can start at the bottom of the field as an apprentice and become the owner.”

“I tend not to think of it as starting at the bottom,” says Navratil. “Rather, I see it as working from the warehouse through the field. This path affords a person [a] valuable skill set [and] knowledge that a college education cannot provide. Also, you tend to make valuable and loyal employees out of those who are willing to work their way
through the ranks.”

“I think that the bottom is the only place to start,” suggests Taylor. “Even out of college, you have to start at the bottom, pay your dues. We have hired some engineers out of college, and we are starting them in the field as well, explaining to them why. And they do understand. Before you tell someone how to put up a sheet of plywood, you need to be able to put up that sheet yourself—always, always, always.”

“It certainly is not as common today as in the past,” says Peterson. “Today’s technology, for one, requires skills normally obtained at a higher education level than high school. However, hard work has been and always will be a major key to success in this industry; and if a person perseveres, they have a chance to get to any level.”

Daley-Grishavea also believes you can do well in the construction industry without having a college degree.
“While having a degree does give you a huge head start,” she says, “you can still develop a promising career without one.”

Rob Little, vice president at Little Construction Co., Inc., in Indiana, agrees. He says, “There is always a need for smart young people, especially with everything moving toward computers these days.”

“Absolutely,” agrees Huntley. “I know there’s the myth about needing a college degree if you plan to go anywhere these days, but it is not that important in construction. I believe that people skills and an ability to build relationships are much more valuable, and that you make sure to deliver the best product you can. If you can do that, you’ll make it, college degree or not. The construction industry is all about people.”

“You might be able to,” says Heering, “but not as easily as you could, say, 15 or 20 years ago. It will take someone who has set high goals for himself or herself and who is willing to do whatever it takes to gain expertise in the area of technology, which means some community college night schooling in computers, estimating, and management.”

“I believe you can,” says Roger Olson, “but a college degree combined with a trade skill would be a big advantage. Job-site experience is invaluable for those aiming for management positions, degree or not.”

John Hinson, division president at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, adds an observation from a different angle: “There is a shortage of E-Verifiable craftsmen and mechanic training programs in our region. I do believe our legislators are increasingly aware that the “college prep” high school classes are not suitable for all students,
and there must be a change in the future so that schools can get funded for vocational training as well as academic success.”

With the industry growing more technical and logistically demanding by the day, a career door that stood wide open only 20 years appears less so today; but the high school graduate who is willing to put in the extra effort and hours in both work and study can still make it to the corner office.

Values: Today Versus Yesterday

Because career choices are all about attaining what you consider valuable in life, addressing the next generation’s career opportunities also must address what they consider necessary for their happiness.

How do the values of today’s graduate, whether from high school or college, compare to those the older generation grew up with; and how should this be addressed at interviews or career-day presentations?

“The world is the size of a fist for these kids,” says Taylor, who also sits on a board of education in his area. “They look for instant gratification. You no longer fix things—like your cell phone or even television—you buy a new one. We have an attention-deficit generation on our hands? “We need to give these kids a sense of pride. We need to teach them the same lessons I was taught way back when training as a union carpenter: Construct it so well that you’re ready to put your name on it? “What we build will affect people’s lives, and we should be proud of having been part of these projects. You sleep better at the end of the day because of this.”

“In general,” says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall and Taping, “the youth of today seem to need more praise than we did. We were happy to have a good job and respected that, and we knew whether we did a good job or not, we did not have to be told. Of course, praise is nice, but lately it seems to have become a necessity? “Perhaps this is a byproduct of the social networks generation, of putting yourself out there, being judged, approved of or not, all the time.”

“I would say the values of today’s graduates are more corporate, and they look for a job where they can climb the corporate ladder,” says Daley-Grishavea (Craig Daley’s daughter). “Loyalty used to be a value, but I don’t think that is big with the new generation. For young people today, prestige is a bigger
thing than accomplishment. They usually see themselves being a lawyer or doctor, not having a construction-industry title? “Me, personally, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment in building things. That’s huge for me. Most young people do not appreciate the value of that.”

“I think it comes down to your upbringing,” says Huntley. “Each of us is an individual whether of a younger generation or not. That said, the older players always seem to take pride in their work, and they still always sweat the details to make sure the job comes out right. Some of the younger guys are only there for the money, and they will take shortcuts—but that’s true in all industries.”

“We visit high schools during career days,” says Heering, “and I like to tell them about the sense of pride
that I have looking at what I’ve created over the years. Today, I can drive by and show my kids some of the jobs I was part of, I can show them the buildings, and they remember that? “In construction, you create something that is a standing testament to what you’ve done. Compare this to going into an auto manufacturing plant, where all you are is another number to somebody. They will not know your name and what you really do, no identity—you work your hours and you’re out. Here, in our company, we’re like a family… “True, it’s not a gravy job. It can be hot and it can be cold. You have to have the passion.”

The values of loyalty, work pride, and a true sense of accomplishment at the end of the day run deeper than instant gratification and a quick buck—no matter how much you make. If you are to live a satisfying life, these values are not optional.

Industry Approach

What, then, should the construction industry as a whole do to attract younger talent?

“If people have an ambition for this industry, they will come regardless; and, frankly, those are the people we want,” says Smith. “They are here because they want to be here. They have a passion for building. If you come just for the money or the benefits or vacation, you won’t last long. But if you have the skill sets, ambition, and a passion for building, the money will follow.”

“We need to let career seekers know that this is an ever-changing and interesting field of occupation,” suggests Navratil.

Taylor adds, “We need to let them know about the sense of accomplishment you feel at the end of the day. Completing a job is kind of bittersweet: You’ve poured the foundation; it’s been your baby from the beginning; and now, no parades, just thanks. But even so, I feel a tremendous amount of pride walking down Michigan Avenue and seeing the buildings we have helped create. That’s a great feeling. That is something this industry offers way and above just about any other industry, and it’s something you cannot put a price tag on.”

“My company is working closely with vocational schools in our area to
change the perception of the industry,” says Peterson.

Adds Little, “That’s a question I have thought about for years and still cannot come up with a decent answer: How does a person change an entire generation into understanding that it takes hard work to be successful and not just have everything handed to them? ?”Money would help, but it’s a slippery slope if overhead costs go up too high. More benefits may help, but most young people don’t even understand the value of benefits. More vacation would help, I’m sure, but if they are always on vacation, how will they learn and get things accomplished? “?The construction industry needs to improve its image in order to make the younger generation see it as a great career choice. The medical, tech, and many other industries focus on glamorizing their fields. We need to follow suit. We need to do some serious marketing to the next generation.”

It is almost as if the great benefits of our industry—challenging, technically demanding, never boring, a constant source of personal pride—hide in a well-guarded secret. We must let it out of the bag.