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

R.Yan Bennett used to be disturbed by apprentices staring at their phones while working. Now he lets it slide.

“You used to see that apprentice over there on his phone and you automatically assumed he was giving up and not working,” said Bennett, executive director of the West Michigan plumbers fitters and service industries on-site 174 and president of West Michigan Building Trades Council.

“Now there are so many pipefitting or plumbing apps on their phone that they might find an offset or look up a code question. You have to be careful how hard you come down on them – they might work. “

In all manufacturing sectors, artisans are starting to implement higher forms of technology, which has revealed a gap between older and younger generations in the workforce in terms of knowledge and cleverness.

In fact, it is this disruption in technical proficiency that has allowed Gen Z and Millennial employees to step into the industry and instantly offer valuable knowledge and experience to their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts.

“We’re at a unique point where the guys my age – 45 years or older who may not be as tech-savvy – can learn just as much on today’s construction site from these younger people who grew up with this technology . ” Said Bennett.

In addition to the development of efficiency increases on the construction site, the high-tech character of the craft has made this industry attractive for a new demographic perspective. Digital natives can now find a place in design and manufacturing without hard physical labor.

The trades also use advanced technology to train potential customers and expose them to life in the workplace in a lively way. Digital welding simulations are an example that Bennett highlighted.

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

“The more technology it gets in stores, the more it becomes a selling point,” said Bennett. “At the moment we’re still recruiting people who don’t mind a fair working day. I think with this big boom as construction sites keep evolving, (technology) will be part of the conversation. “

Closing the gap

With an aging workforce and a growing talent gap, artisans are trying to create a steadier pipeline of young workers into the industry or the situation is at risk of getting worse.

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

The manufacturing sector is even older, with an average age of 44.4 years and 370,900 employees aged 55 and over.

The younger generations are not only critical to what these industries will look like in the future, but they are also important to keeping them alive.

“It’s the most important concern our members have right now,” said Norm Brady, president and CEO of West Michigan’s chapter of the Associated builders and contractorssaid the growing talent gap.

The marketing of skilled trades to middle and high school students is important. At the same time, all industries in Michigan are dealing with a flatter talent pool.

Brady pointed out that Michigan high school graduates have declined since 2008, with around 100,000 graduates this year, up from 127,000 in 2008. In 2031, that number is projected to reach around 85,000.

In addition, Brady estimated that 48 percent of those currently employed in the construction industry will retire over the next 15 years.

“We have this steep curve of people coming in and the rate of acceleration out of the industry is going up a lot – and that doesn’t even take into account the growth of the industry,” he said.

As middle and high school students are bombarded with available programs and career opportunities, skilled trade officials must be methodical in how they market the industry to the younger generation.

“We have to tell the real story of building,” said Brady of his strategy of looking into the future. “The real story is about well-paid wages and benefits that provide a living wage to raise your family. It’s a story of collaboration and teamwork, and the part of a team that improves the communities we live in. These are not dead end jobs to do if you can’t go to college. “

A slow shift

Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives for the West Michigan business development organization The Right Place Inc., said the industry paid the price for a time when it shied away from encouraging young workers to practice the craft.

More recently, however, she has seen many West Michigan manufacturers build strong pipelines with prospects even in junior high, and said the efforts would ultimately pay off. Brown said the thriving tech schools across West Michigan are also a good sign.

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

With the advance towards Industry 4.0, manufacturers are increasingly using big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other advanced technologies. According to Brown, this is the perfect time for a younger, tech-savvy generation to showcase themselves in the industry.

Creating a culture of continuous learning is an attractive incentive that employers in the field can use to attract younger generations of workers. In manufacturing alone, workers can earn a number of certificates that are carried over from job to job, making them a more marketable employee.

“My generation, that really wasn’t the case,” Brown said. “You did your apprenticeship and if you had to go to (additional) training, you did. It is completely different now. That has to be a change of mindset for both the employee and the employer so that it is worthwhile for someone to learn for life and to continue to learn and develop. “