Trends in Employment: How Firms Can Adjust to Attract and Retain Talented Workers

Caitlyn Freitas

Caitlyn Freitas is the Associate Editor for NIA. Her responsibilities include curating, editing, and writing content for Insulation Outlook; working on marketing and outreach pieces; and editing all NIA publications. She can be reached at

November 21, 2016

The building and construction industries are increasingly attractive to graduating students. In 2014, CareerBuilder conducted a survey of high school seniors intending to go to college and found that engineering was the most popular intended major. Like many fields in construction, there is competition for the best engineering talent. One of the nation’s largest engineering staffing providers, Kelly Services, predicts that the United States will need 250,000 more engineers in the next 10 years. Many engineering firms have significant numbers of employees approaching retirement age, making the search for talent even more crucial.

A Generation of Different Values

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials, or those born from 1977–1998, are now the nation’s largest living generation, surpassing Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964). They are also, according to the Pew Research Center, the largest generation in the American workforce. This generation has been uniquely unified in their approach to work and its impact on their life and family. Previous generations have put career first, but this generation seems to believe that family comes first and that modern technology can be used to put both on more equal footing and accomplish more.

Different communication styles and working preferences have led to some clashes between these newer workers and management, who may be from Generation X (born 1965–1976) or the Boomer generation. The good news is that this generation is not as dissimilar to prior generations as they may seem. All generations are motivated by accomplishments and Millennials move at the speed of light—with proper training and field experience, they can be incredibly efficient. While the younger generations may eschew social interaction and traditional face-to-face meetings, they are savvy and are more likely to accomplish work from any location, at any time. To recruit the next generation of engineers, firms may have to take an internal look at their offerings. With some attention to new trends and communication styles, firms can ensure they attract and retain the best talent.

Why Students Gravitate Toward the Building Industry

Stable Career Options

To learn more about why students continue to gravitate toward positions in engineering and the greater construction industry, Insulation Outlook staff recently sat down with students and newer entrants to the workforce to get the inside scoop on what they look for in their careers. Many Millennials graduated college at the height of the recession, which has led to a heightened focus on choosing a course of study that has solid job prospects. Speaking on job security, Charley Dixon, a Project Engineer who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Building Construction and Real Estate, affirmed, “I think things are great in the industry, there’s always a need for construction and there always will be.”  There is good reason to be optimistic, with overall nonresidential building projected to grow 6.7% in 2017, according to the American Institute of Architects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has environmental engineers and environmental engineering technicians as among the top 30 fastest growing jobs by 2018. Most other engineering fields are predicted to have average or slightly above average growth going into 2020, as do construction management jobs.

Since choosing a secure job field is important to Millennials, it makes sense that individual security and pay are also ranked as very important. A majority of surveys show that Millennials rank base pay as the most important factor in selecting and staying in a job, and cite that lack of opportunities to advance and make more money are the major reasons they leave jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for various branches of engineering and construction management range from $82,220 to $129,990. These median wages far exceed average median salaries for college-educated workers (who have a median weekly salary of $1,137 or $59,124 annually), and firms looking to attract new talent should make use of the excellent earning potential possible in their fields. Recruiting efforts at the college level that focus on above-average earnings can be an excellent way to attract more people into the industry.

Variety and a Selection of Worksites

Nearly all interviewees mentioned the variety of work and the ability to work on the physical job site—as opposed to just being in an office—as positives that helped draw them toward careers in the building industry. For Sasha Azel, who will be graduating from Virginia Tech in the spring of 2017 with a degree in Construction Engineering and Management, the combination of getting to work in an office and outside on the job site is part of what attracted her to engineering. Azel affirmed she is “interested in the hands on, watching it get built versus sitting at a desk all day.” Matthew Harris graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and now works doing HVAC for an architecture and engineering consulting firm. Harris agreed that “one of things I really like about [my job] is it being a mixture of the best work—being in the office working on the design, and then doing field work, walking the site, and helping out with any construction questions. You’re not stuck in the office all the time.” He added that one of the best things employers can do is diversify projects to allow for learning opportunities and to keep employees from feeling bored.

Josh Smith, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, left his job as a Nuclear Engineer because of a slow pace of work and boredom. His new job as a Project Estimator/Manager for a mechanical insulation contractor in the Mid-Atlantic region offers him variety that has kept him engaged for several years. While initially he did not know much about the job or mechanical insulation, which was not a focus in his academic program, he said he was pleasantly surprised by how involved the process was, noting, “There’s so many styles of insulation and each job is different. Also, the systems are changing and you have variances in specs. You have to work a lot with your team and mechanical contractor and communicate.” For him, working in this field has transformed his perspective. “When I go into a building and I see exposed pipe or inadequate insulation, I’m thinking how I can improve it. The system can’t operate to its fullest potential without the insulation,” he said.

For Smith, and for many Millennials, staying busy and working on a variety of different projects is a key part of what motivates him to stay at his job and perform at a high level. Jonathan Colebrook, a graduate student studying Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, affirmed, “The types of projects are very important. I enjoy short-term projects that keep you active and also long-term projects that help you grow.” Firms looking to retain their workers should look seriously at diversifying assignments and offering a variety of opportunities.

Office Culture

There is no denying it, for Millennial workers, “Culture is huge,” said Colebrook. Millennials want an office culture that is welcoming, and where open communication between various levels of workers is encouraged. They want to feel involved with the team and be able to make a difference. Azel notes that overarching goals affect company culture, and that was a major factor when she was choosing a place to work, noting, “One of the biggest things that was important to me when looking at companies is the way they describe their company values. For my employer, their value was that everyone loves what they do and loves being a part of the building and construction industry. And that really spoke to me, and I love that I’m helping people with my work.”

Perhaps the most socially conscious and certainly the most diverse generation, Millennials are more likely to stay in a job if they are able to identify its mission as serving a greater good. While many jobs are focused on work that has non-tangible results, careers in the construction and building industries offer a chance to build something physical that will help communities—and firms should capitalize on this if they are looking to attract these workers. Azel continued, “I like this career path because I feel like I’m actively helping those designs come to life and that they’re fulfilling a need that someone has or a need for the community, so I just like that I get to be part of the actual building that’s going to be beneficial to so many people.”

Harris, whose main job responsibility is specifying insulation for HVAC systems, said that he likes knowing “you can make a difference by saving energy.  If you get a system that isn’t insulated properly, it can be catastrophic and really expensive.” Companies that can make the connection between the work being done and the larger effect on the community and the world will have a much easier time retaining their employees. Additionally, Harris noted that opportunities for feedback and more training are also incredibly important for his development, and that companies that offer this are more attractive. He affirmed, “I look for the senior engineer presence because that’s how you learn—from people who have done it.”

Azel added that for those entering the industry from a formal degree program, getting that personal instruction from experienced workers is critical, saying, “Classes help you with basics and managerial, but all the technical stuff comes out in the field. So they have to put a focus on being good mentors and teaching.” Colebrook puts a similar emphasis on the importance of learning. “Mentoring has been a fantastic opportunity at some of my internships and I have learned so much information—sometimes more than I learned from school. They need to be willing to teach, and I like to work with people who have been doing this a long time so I can learn from them,” he said. Firms should look closely at their internal training and look at ways to increase mentoring opportunities—employees will not stay long at a company where growth and learning opportunities are absent. At a time when firms are losing knowledgeable workers to retirement, it is a real benefit that the new generation welcomes learning and wants to soak up all this knowledge.

Work-Life Balance and Flexibility

Perhaps the hardest challenge for managers is the increasing focus on work-life balance and flexible work schedules. According to a study by Bentley University, 77% of Millennials say that flexible work hours would make the workplace more productive for people their age. As technological tools have advanced, it has become easier for employees to work remotely, and many Millennial workers put a premium on this type of workplace flexibility. Whereas time in the office or putting in 40 hours has been the yardstick used to measure productivity, Millennials may hasten the workplace to an era where the focus is more on actual results and accomplishments rather than location and time. Dixon affirmed, “You’re not paying me for the hours I sit in the office, you’re paying me for the work I do.”

For many workers, flexible schedules go hand-in-hand with trust. John Freeman, who graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in Construction Management and is now a Construction Manager at Petrin Corporation, said he thinks ideal employers will “give people the autotomy they need to get their work done—if they feel like they need to be in the field, the office, or with clients, they need the freedom to get their job done as needed.” Harris and Azel also agreed that work-life balance is important, and research suggests that employers may actually reap benefits from allowing workers to work from home or work less hours. Given their comfort with technological tools, Millennials have responded to the advantages of technology and seek ways to implement it to make their work more efficient and enable them to work remotely. While there has been some criticism of this reliance on electronic communication and technology tools, it has made many companies more effective.

Research suggests that employers may actually benefit from allowing increased flexibility. Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom did a study on the effects of working remotely and concluded that working away from the office actually increased productivity and employee satisfaction. Firms should take a look at their policies and procedures to see where they can increase flexibility. The Pew Research Center found that 15% of male employees and 21% of female employees would give up some of their pay and even slow the pace of promotion in their careers in exchange for working fewer hours. Opening up to the possibility of alternative work arrangements can be an excellent way to attract and retain the best talent.

Rudy Nigl, a Project Manager/Estimator at L & C Insulation, Inc., commented that one of the benefits of working at his company is that the owner is very cognizant of family life and its obligations, saying, “We’re fortunate in our company because we’re smaller and our owner is very family oriented and understanding of family issues that may arise. When people want to take vacations or need time, they have it to use. Because of this, everyone in our company is satisfied and happy all the time.” Employers that focus on accommodating schedules and appropriate vacation time to spend with family will reap the benefits from happy employees.

Looking Forward

While the newer generation of workers does have some unique qualities, in many ways its members are interested in what employees have always been interested in: good pay and job security, interesting projects, and the chance to learn and grow. Firms can draw specifically on the things Millennials are interested in to best reach out to these workers, and, help keep them once they are hired. It is worthwhile to take a look at your company’s offerings and see if they match up with what these discerning future employees are looking for. When looking to recruit, companies should focus on the benefits their field offers—reliable work and above-average pay—and then take a look internally at what they can do to increase their value as an employer through mentoring, flexible work schedules, and ensuring they have a positive organizational culture. Employers that adapt to the new working culture will have the best chance of attracting and keeping the most skilled workers.



Copyright Statement

This article was published in the November 2016 issue of Insulation Outlook magazine. Copyright © 2016 National Insulation Association. All rights reserved. The contents of this website and Insulation Outlook magazine may not be reproduced in any means, in whole or in part, without the prior written permission of the publisher and NIA. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited and would violate NIA’s copyright and may violate other copyright agreements that NIA has with authors and partners. Contact to reprint or reproduce this content.

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