Bridging the Skills Gap: Training the Next Generation

The construction industry is facing a serious obstacle when it comes to recruitment. The problem lies not just in who will fill the retiring generation’s boots, but how knowledge will be passed down from this highly skilled group to those rising in the industry today.

AECOM Tishman’s Isabella Franks and Mike Mennella recently sat down to discuss their thoughts and perspectives on this industry wide concern. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

MIKE MENNELLA: I’ve been in the industry for close to fifty years, but I can’t remember a time when we faced such a recruitment issue. Why do you think this is happening now?

ISABELLA FRANKS: I believe the industry is doing a poor job of selling itself. Construction is competing for talent from a younger generation who are seeking fulfilling, innovative, and, often, flexible work environments. A career in construction definitely satisfies all these elements but other industries do a better job of promoting themselves in our tech-driven, digital world.

MENNELLA: I think my generation may feel like this is a problem for human resources to solve, but that’s just one avenue. We need to do a better job of pinpointing success and creating blueprints for these paths for those just beginning their careers.

FRANKS: I’m interested to hear why you think this problem has gotten to the high level of concern that it’s at today. Even in my ten years on the job, I’ve seen a huge change. Do you think it has to do with shifting priorities and mindsets of the younger generation?

MENNELLA: The pillars of construction haven’t changed and the needs of the business haven’t changed. What’s changed are the tools we use to fulfill these needs. Technical grasps of the industry are important, but it’s just as important to learn how to build trust. That’s our biggest asset as construction managers and builders. Our role has always been, and continues to be, bringing everyone on a project together and ensuring everyone is on the same page.

FRANKS: I agree. Facilitating engagement and partnership is probably one of the most important aspects of our job. Bringing out the best in each project stakeholder is a vital skill. It’s also invaluable for those just starting their careers to realize that they’re going to be working with people from different backgrounds. It’s one of the best parts of the job, actually. I love that I can go onsite and get totally different perspectives on a complex issue. A construction site is a great mix of people with varying views of the world and those that succeed do so because they’re fantastic practical thinkers.

MENNELLA: Yes, and I think our company is unique in its ability to do this success fully because of our mix of skills-based knowledge, technological expertise, and reputation in the industry. The challenge is to impart the central role we play in the success of a project.

FRANKS: True, I do think that’s something we do really well because we have a team with great experience and work with the best subcontractors thanks to our construction legacy. Everyone’s learning from each other.

MENNELLA: Focusing on this idea of partnership is something that will serve the younger generation well in their early careers. It’s not something that’s typically taught in classrooms, but it’s so important. The classroom teaches theory, but once you get onsite, you can’t always make a decision based on a practical application. Not when there are two hundred people literally waiting for you. That comes from experience, confidence, and an appreciation of the impact your decision will have.

FRANKS: Something else that’s interesting right now is the advent of new technologies changing the way we build. We’re on the precipice of a new wave of innovation and we don’t quite know where it will lead us.

MENNELLA: The structures themselves are becoming consistently more complex and challenging, so being able to see the whole picture is even more important today. The outcome is always the same – when a project wraps, you’ll have a completed building. The key is finding more efficient, safer, and cost effective ways to get to this outcome, which is where the new technologies come in. Young talent is better attuned to creating these efficiencies, but they have to have a wide lens.

FRANKS: And, they have to ask questions. The only way to be successful is to continue to ask questions – no matter your level of skill or expertise. You can never stop being interested in how and why things are built, because at the end of the day, that’s our reward. You can actually see what you’ve created and it’s a legacy you’ll always carry with you. That’s a rare, tangible prize that can only be found in construction.

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