Managing Five Generations at the Construction Site

Communication and Integration Are Essential for Success

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In today's construction industry, as well as other industries, we are seeing a blend of generations acting together at a single site or workplace. Many companies have high goals and metrics regarding diversity, which means that they are encouraging and accepting more diverse candidates and workers than ever. But balancing the gap of years between the oldest and youngest generations can be challenging.

This article describes some of those challenges and offers a few practical tips to manage different generations in the construction industry.  

5 Generations Working Side By Side in Construction

Depending on the source, birth date ranges can differ for each generation. But we can identify 5 main generations in the workplace today—Traditionalists (born between 1927 and 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976), Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), and Generation Z, iGen or Centennials (born 1996 or later). While each worker leaves his or her own footprint in the workplace, and can stand independently from the characteristics of any group, it is important to understand the circumstances, attitudes and values that influence each generation and their skillsets.

Traditionalists, for example, were raised during the Great Depression and worked mostly for one employer during the span of their careers.

Therefore, they can be very resourceful with minimal tools and are loyal employees.

Comparatively, Baby Boomers, who now find themselves in charge of many construction projects and in managerial positions, often like to drive the work flow and impose their leadership traits. They will commit to extensive work hours and can also fit very well as policy enforcers—safety officers, construction inspectors and skilled crew leaders.

Generation X employees, who are now in many mid-management construction positions, similarly find themselves comfortable supervising and mentoring others. And because this generation grew up with many technology developments, they work well with powered tools, computers, and other digital tools like using PDFs over blueprints.       

Millennials are also very tech-oriented, and having grown up in a workplace with flexible schedules and remote employment, rely on mobile technology like instant messaging and cloud services to communicate, and are often interested in sustainable strategies like renewable energy, reclaimed products and recycling at the job site.

Generation Z employees rely heavily on technology as well. And because they are entering a workforce that is increasingly being transformed by gig or freelance economy projects, they can be very entrepreneurial and are capable of multitasking between different projects.  

Labor Force Breakdown By Age Group

The US Department of Labor and other industry groups have been able to gather some data about different workplace generations. In 2010, the workforce breakdown by age was:

  • 16 to 34 (mostly Millennials and some Generation Z) was 36 percent
  • 35 to 44 (Generation X) was 22 percent
  • 45 to 54 (Baby Boomers) was 23 percent
  • 55+ (some Baby Boomers and Traditionalists) was 19 percent

Projected stats for 2020, however, show that the breakdown will shift slightly in favor of an aging workforce:

  • 16 to 34 (Generation Z and Millennials) falls to 33 percent
  • 35 to 44 (mostly Millennials and some Generation X) falls to 21 percent
  • 45 to 54 (Generation X) falls to 20 percent
  • 55+ (some Generation X, mostly Baby Boomers and Traditionalists) rises to 26 percent

The surge in 55+ age group is also reinforced by other labor stats that currently show how freelance workers 55 to 64 make up 14.7 percent of the gig economy, while workers 65+ account for 24.1 percent.

As a whole, these numbers reveal both interesting trends and potential weaknesses. And as the age gap shifts and grows, essential skill sets and workplace habits need to be readapted to find a better balance to integrate younger and older workers.

When it comes to communication, for instance, Millennials—which have now surpassed Baby Boomers as America’s largest workforce group—and Traditionalists have to use both tech-oriented and face to face approaches. The statistics can also help you prepare for an aging workforce that could require more benefits pay and may have more work absences due to health-related issues.

What Positive Impact Can Each Generation Bring to Your Workplace

Each generation has the power to influence other generations positively. That is why it is important to identify values and attitudes that can be beneficial to the entire workforce.

Traditionalists, for instance, are often characterized by their work ethic and loyalty. And while their staunch determination can make them slower than other generations to adapt to new habits and technology, the experience they acquired over the years and their one-on-one interpersonal skills can prove to be valuable.

Baby Boomers, comparatively, are characterized by their confidence, independence and self-reliance, which often challenges or tempers Traditionalist work loyalties. But they are also known for their hard work, and many keep working past their retirement.   

Generation X is often described as the “in-between generation”. But this does not mean that they should be overlooked. And that middle-child perspective can be handy when tackling problems between older and younger generations. They can be tech-savvy and flexible, which empowers them to find good work/life balances for the entire company.  

While Millennials are often looked upon as the “younger sibling” in the workplace, being now the largest group, their values and attitudes will shape the future off your workplace. They are often characterized as “job-hoppers”, being the first generation impacted by the freelance economy, but this autonomy has also made them very goal-oriented, and adaptable to work on different teams. Millennials also share similar perspectives with older generations when it comes to being family-centric, and this in part also drives them to find a better work/life balance.  

Generation Z, while being the youngest, should not be neglected. They are growing in experience, and their emerging attitudes and values will not only challenge older generations in the workforce to think out-of-the-box, but also will influence your workforce to find new solutions and be more creative.

How to Communicate Effectively With Multiple Generations

Working with multiple generations can be challenging, especially if you don't have the right communication plan in place to take care of all of these behaviors. Start by identifying the characteristics and values of every generation. Once the skills of each worker has been identified, you will need to discuss what really motivates them. Remember every generation has specific circumstances, interests and goals, and having younger generations managing older ones can be challenging when technology is part of the equation.

A key aspect of the communication process is to be patient and recognize that not all workers will be open to accepting changes or criticism. Do not stereotype, and focus on what each worker can contribute instead of what he or she does wrong. On construction projects, and with so many tools and tech available every day, it is hard to make changes on the go, so be sure to establish a communication protocol that allows and promotes a training development process, as well as the shadowing of roles.

Recommended Job Assignments for Generations

A recent study by National Association of Home Building shows that "workers with younger median ages occupy trades such as helpers, roofers and laborers, while older median ages fill managerial, supervisory and equipment operator positions".

Although there is no written rule for anyone, there are certain tasks that could suit the skill sets and attitudes of one generation over another. In construction, for instance, Traditionalists are often employed as building inspectors, supervisors and managers. You can find many Baby Boomers working as equipment operators and in management positions. Generation X employees work with explosives, and as carpenters, masons and crane operators. And Millennials and Generation Z employees are working mostly as helpers and general laborers.

 Here is a list of possible assignments depending on the generation:

  • Baby Boomers: Great trainers and ability to coach younger employees. Effective policy makers. Can write and implement winning proposals.
  • Generation X: Effective leaders, passionate and great on individual tasks. Teamwork and working together on complex projects are two key areas.
  • Millennials: They will excel with technology. Challenge and engage them with different projects. Ideal for BIM, augmented reality, modular construction, and IoT.
  • Traditionalists: Have great work ethic. Can take leadership on job incident investigations and policy enforcement. Think about safety officials and construction compliance directors.
  • Generation Z: The entrepreneurship and multitasking skills they get from working in the gig economy makes them ideal candidates for apprenticeships and general labor projects. Their savviness with technology will also make them handy as helpers in the workplace.

Remember these are just some guidelines aimed at getting the most out of your workforce.

8 Tips When Managing Different Generations

These are some guidelines that will help you develop and manage different generations on construction projects:

  1. Do reverse mentoring, meaning that younger employees can train older generations. And then reverse the process.
  2. Let Traditionalists talk about their experiences and how they have come to learn things at work. Office spaces and crew assignments shall be balanced with a mix of all generations.
  3. Try a new approach. Allow older generations to start using tech more and more, but provide training at a different pace than Millennials train.
  4. Embrace different communication methods, and do not rely solely on text messages or emails.
  5. Do not focus on the hours, focus on the results. The times of working 7-4 or 8-5 are things of the past. Allow your workers to set their own schedule as long as it is reasonable and in accordance with company policies.
  6. Technology is designed to increase safety. Using more automated tools and systems could mean less physical effort reducing the possibility of injuries.
  7. Establish a reward program with options to satisfy any of these generations. Not only economic rewards will be needed.
  8. The leadership role and expectations need to be clearly defined with set goals and dates for all generations to follow.