Published in Talent

Evolving technology melds generations in skilled trades, though talent gap looms

BY Sunday, April 25, 2021 05:15pm

Ryan Bennett used to be bothered by apprentices staring at their phones while on the job. Now, he lets it slide.

“You used to see the apprentice over there on their phone and you automatically assumed they were slacking off and not working,” said Bennett, business manager for the West Michigan Plumbers Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 and president of the West Michigan Building Trades Council.

“Now, there are so many pipefitting or plumbing apps on their phone where they might be figuring out an offset or looking up a code question. You have to be careful about how hard you come down on them — they might be working.”

Across manufacturing sectors, the skilled trades are starting to implement higher forms of technology, which has highlighted a divide in knowledge and savvy between the older and younger generations in the workforce.

In fact, it’s this disconnect in tech proficiency that has allowed Gen Z and Millennial workers to break into the industry and immediately offer valuable knowledge and experience to their Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues.

“We’re kind of at a unique point where the guys that are my age — 45 or older that may not be as tech savvy — have as much to learn on today’s job site from these younger people who grew up with this technology,” Bennett said.

In addition to unlocking efficiencies on the job site, the higher-tech nature of skilled trades have made this line of work appealing to a new demographic of prospects. Digital natives can now find a place in construction and manufacturing without only hard physical labor.

The trades also utilize advanced technology to train prospects and expose them to life on the job in vivid ways. Digital welding simulations are one example that Bennett highlighted.

And, while the trades benefit from evolving technology, they are still defined by their physical nature.

“The more that technology becomes prevalent in the trade, it will start to become more of a selling point,” Bennett said. “Right now, we’re still recruiting people that don’t mind a fair day’s work. I think with this big upswell where job sites are evolving, (technology) will be part of the conversation.”

Closing the gap

With an aging workforce and a widening talent gap, the skilled trades look to create a steadier pipeline of young workers into the industry or risk worsening the situation.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of construction industry professionals is 42.9 years old, and nearly 245,000 workers are 55 years old or older.

The manufacturing sector is even older, with a median age of 44.4, with 370,900 workers age 55 or older.

Not only are the younger generations crucial in shaping how these industries look in the future, but they’re also vital to keeping them afloat.

“It’s the most significant concern that our members have right now,” Norm Brady, president and CEO of West Michigan’s chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors, said of the widening talent gap.

Marketing skilled trades to junior high and high school students is important. But at the same time, all industries in Michigan are dealing with a shallower talent pool.

Brady pointed out that the number of high school graduates in Michigan has fallen since 2008, with around 100,000 graduates this year compared to 127,000 in 2008. In 2031, that number is forecasted to land at around 85,000.

On top of that, Brady estimated that in the next 15 years, 48 percent of people currently employed in the construction industry will be retiring.

“We have this steep curve down of people coming in and the acceleration of the rate out of the industry picks up in a significant way — and that doesn’t even consider the growth of the industry,” he said. 

With junior high and high school students bombarded with available programs and career path options, skilled trade officials must be methodical in how they market the industry to the younger generation.

“We need to tell the real story of construction,” Brady said of his strategy in engaging with future prospects. “The real story is the story about good paying wages and benefits that provide a living wage to raise your family. It’s a story of collaborating and teamwork and being a part of a team that improves the communities we live in. These are not dead-end jobs that, if you can’t go to college, then you can do this.”

A slow shift

Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives at West Michigan economic development organization The Right Place Inc., said the industry has been paying the price for a period when it shied away from encouraging young workers to pursue the skilled trades.

More recently, though, she has witnessed many West Michigan manufacturers creating strong pipelines that reach prospects as early as junior high, and said the efforts will eventually pay dividends. Brown said the thriving tech schools throughout West Michigan are also a good sign.

“(Manufacturers) understand it’s going to take a while — it’s not easy where you need a person today so you’ll quickly grab someone,” Brown said. “It’s good that the manufacturers are really starting to think that way because they see they have to put in a little time to get the pipeline where it needs to be.”

With a push toward Industry 4.0, manufacturers are more often leveraging big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other advanced technology. This, according to Brown, is the perfect time for a younger, tech-savvy generation to “strut their stuff” in the industry.

Creating a culture of continual learning is one attractive incentive employers in this field can use to attract younger generations of workers. In manufacturing alone, workers can acquire a number of certificates that transfer from job to job and make them a more marketable employee.

“My generation, that really wasn’t the case,” Brown said. “You did your education and if you needed to go to (additional) training, you did. That’s totally different now. That’s got to be a mindset change with both the employee but also the employer to make it worthwhile for someone by getting that lifelong learning and continual upskilling and reskilling.”

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