Young people now entering the industry hold the keys to its future – let’s listen to them

Chloe mcculloch black

What can young people teach older generations? We all know young professionals just starting out in their careers have a lot to learn about how the construction industry works. They may have worked hard to acquire academic and technical skills at college or university but the widely accepted view is that none of that prepares them fully for the realities of being at the coalface. Therefore, the old timers often argue, young staff need support to learn the ropes, gain experience, establish networks and generally adapt to real working life. 

But what if that relationship were flipped? What if the existing industry were to adapt to those entering it for the first time? The idea would be to see things from this new generation’s perspective, and listen to their hopes, dreams, ambitions and, most importantly, their ideas. It’s hardly as if those at the top, with decades of experience, have all the answers to construction’s many and deep-rooted problems. Particularly at this time of turbulence and change, we need people who challenge the “we’ve always done it that way” attitude that can take hold. 

“At this time of change, we need people who challenge the ‘we’ve always done it that way’ attitude that can take hold”

The industry regularly self-flagellates over its failure to modernise at the same pace as other sectors. Ripe for disruption, construction also suffers from an inability to attract the recruits it needs to replace the thousands of workers set to retire over the next 10 years. One way of unblocking these issues could be understanding young people a little more – recognising the value they bring as well as the support they need.       

That’s why this magazine – as part of our Building Your Future series – decided to pull together a panel of 12 young people aged between 23 and 33, all with some experience of the workplace, and ask them about themselves.

It can be hard to find time for construction’s positive stories with the endless Brexit background noise, but it is uplifting to read about young men and women from a range of disciplines who seem to love working in construction while having no illusions about its imperfections and who are brimming with ideas about how to make it better.

So what do they care about? Some familiar themes come through: improving construction’s productivity, reducing waste, breaking down barriers between professions. The difference is that when this group talks about how new technologies can drive efficiencies through collaboration you know they haven’t had to be converted – they are digital natives and changing to new ways of procuring, costing, designing and building doesn’t faze them.

They don’t hold the same fears others have around sharing information; many are young enough to only have ever known a world with mobile technology. 

This is a big part of what marks the so-called “millennials” and now “Generation Z” out from all the others. There must be offices up and down the land where older workers are picking the brains of their younger colleagues for digital tips. The confidence of youth may intimidate some, but there’s no denying it’s extremely useful for an industry that sits on the cusp of so much technological change. 

By contrast, it’s also telling that our group placed an importance on the social value of the work they do, on protecting the world’s natural resources, on stamping out sexism and on supporting mental health in the workplace. Technology is a vital tool, but the group clearly identified with the human side of construction. 

What is certain is that the people joining construction today are going to have to adapt like no generation before.

They could well have to work into their 80s while knowing that many of the jobs of the future haven’t been thought of yet. It’s likely that those in their 20s now will have portfolio careers, allowing them to escape being pigeon-holed into roles but demanding those soft human skills just as much as technical know-how.

This is tomorrow’s world and it’s in everyone’s interests to try to understand it. And embrace it.   

Chloë McCulloch is acting editor of Building magazine