Over the past year, several studies into the generation of young adults in the workforce have found that the so-called Millennials may not be so different from their generational predecessors. The children of the Baby Boomers, these young people were born between 1980 and 2000 and they number even more than the Boomers, which had been the largest demographic cohort born in America up to that point.
With more buying power and political clout, Millennials were viewed with great interest by businesses that wanted to attract their consumption and employ them. In the mid-2000s, as the first of this generation reached adulthood, there appeared to be striking differences between the expectations of the Millennials and those of the previous generations. Kids who grew up in the last 30 years knew only the digital world. The Internet was their encyclopedia and their entertainment medium. Sustainable living was a given. And they seemed to think that they could change the world, even at such a young age.
While there will inevitably be differences between the assumptions that people raised thirty years apart will make about the world, much of what was held up as different about the Millennial generation isn’t all that different, or even all that true.
“One thing that struck me was how similar the values were across the generations,” says Sabine Hoover, content manager for FMI Consulting and the co-author of Millennials in Construction: Learning to Engage a New Workforce. “Think of when you were young. You’re energetic. You want to change the world. That changes as we age. Because the Millennials are so large we’re just more aware of those values in them.”
FMI’s study was one of several that have shown that many of the preconceptions that were popularly held about 18 to 35 year olds may be misconceptions. FMI surveyed 369 people – including 201 Millennials – in the construction industry in the spring of 2015 to find out about their level of workplace engagement. What they found was that young workers are seeking the same kinds of engagement and are willing to make the same commitments as Generation X or the Baby Boomers with whom they work. If you’re surprised by that result, you’re not alone.
“I was very surprised. The first time I saw the results I went back to the analyst and made him run it again,” laughs Hoover. “It was very encouraging. I started looking at other studies for similar results and found ours wasn’t the only one.”
A year earlier, IBM Institute for Business Value had conducted a study of those born between 1980 and 1993 in the workplace. Their findings were similar to FMI’s and, in fact, they labeled the results “myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths.” The five myths IBM revealed were:
- Millennials career goals and expectations are different than those of other generations
- Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone should get a trophy
- Millennials are digital addicts who want to do everything online.
- Millennials can’t make a decision without asking everyone to weigh in.
- Millennials are more likely to jump ship if their workplace doesn’t meet expectations.
The IBM study found that Millennials goals were within one to three points of the previous generations. They valued transparency and ethics over recognition from a boss (35 percent to 29 percent). Millennials listed their top three learning preferences and all were physical rather than digital (conferences, classroom training and working alongside an experienced colleague). While 56 percent of Millennials said they would seek input before deciding, 49 percent of Boomers said the same thing and 64 percent of Gen X-ers sought input. And their top reason for leaving their job was the same as Baby Boomers, with 42 percent of each saying they would leave for more money and a more creative workplace. More than seeming like a divergent new group of workers, the younger generation sounded a lot like the Baby Boomers.
“Most of the Millennials have Boomers for parents, so it’s not surprising that they would have the same values,” notes Hoover.
Also in 2014, global real estate service firm CBRE how the generational expectations were changing the workplace. In response to what was obviously a significant workplace design trend – the shift to open, collaborative plans – CBRE sought to see how much the preferences of the Millennials was driving this new way of working. Like IBM and FMI, CBRE discovered that younger workers wanted to work like their older colleagues.
CBRE found that Millennials were looking most for space to think and create, ahead of space to meet and collaborate. Millennial respondents were the most likely to seek more time to collaborate but only by a 51 to 49 margin compared to Baby Boomers. But Boomers were half as interested in more formal meetings (27 to 54 percent) and much more interested in connecting via social media than Millennials. Younger workers preferred to do more work by email than Boomers or Gen X-ers but only one in three responded that way.
Understanding how the younger generation thinks about work has taken on greater urgency. For one thing, 2015 marked the point in time when more Millennials were alive than Baby Boomers. In 2015, workers under the age of 35 made up 34 percent of the workforce; that same generation of workers will comprise more than half the workers in 2025. Moreover, attracting and retaining talent has become a higher priority issue for businesses. This is especially true for construction industry businesses, which face a bigger potential shortage in workers. What FMI concluded in their study is that Millennials offer a great opportunity to the construction industry and that engagement was the key.
Construction has a smaller share of younger workers than other industries, yet its challenges appear to be the kinds that the 18 to 35 year olds want to solve. There are some key attributes about construction that are especially attractive to Millennials: the uniqueness of one project from another, the need for creative solutions and collaboration, and the key role of communication. Millennials bring new qualities to the construction workforce, which would be of great benefit to the industry. They look to technology for solutions and expect that problems can be solved. FMI also found that the attitudes and preferences of Millennials tune well to construction’s strengths. What the consultant found missing was a consistently engaging atmosphere.
The key findings of the FMI survey were that Millennials are motivated as much by financial and career security as previous generations. That’s not surprising given that the financial crisis may have defined the start of their careers. Millennials also expressed a willingness to work beyond their job requirements and an interest in being challenged at work that exceeded the responses of other generations. Most striking was the fact that 92 percent of the Millennial generation responded that they expected to stay five years or more working at a place where management demonstrated a sincere interest in their well-being.
FMI’s key findings were:
- Having a defined and well-communicated vision is critical to engaging Millennials long term.
- Millennials are eager to be challenged and ready to go above and beyond to make their companies succeed.
- Having clear career advancement opportunities in place is the key to engaging people long term across all generations.
- Engagement starts at the top.
- For Millennials, money counts.
- Millennials in construction want to push the envelope and drive innovation.
The problem, as FMI sees it, is that construction is an industry where these kinds of engagement conversations have regularly happened. Most construction companies – be they contractors, architects or supply chain – aren’t large corporations; often the companies are closely-held small businesses. Construction is a results-oriented, project-focused business. What it will take to attract and hold onto more of the younger generation is a change in the rules of engagement.
Millennials ranked a company’s commitment to social responsibility low in priority but put personal development third, behind competitive pay and work/life balance. Business owners will need to have more conversations about how they see a young employee’s career mapping out and how the employee can develop. Millennials won’t be as motivated by the thought of working hard to become a senior project manager as they will by the opportunity to contribute to the company’s success now. That means involving them in project meetings that they might not need to attend and listening if they have input. It means checking in with them and giving them feedback in a direct but positive way.
“The big takeaway for me was how important culture was,” says Hoover. “Regardless of the industry, if you have a strong culture – a leader who can inspire people, who cares – it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of that culture to young workers.”
By: Jeff Burd