By RT Ferrell
RT Ferrell is a copywriter and creative director at UpperNinety, a project-based creative agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Attracting and retaining the next generation of workers was a common theme of the 2019 Steel Erectors Association of America Conference, held April 24-26, 2019 in Concord, N.C. Keynote speaker Kayleen McCabe and closing speaker Peggy Smedley both offered keen insights and valuable action plans to address skilled labor shortages.
Kayleen McCabe may not be in the steel erection industry, but as a celebrity general contractor whose show, Rescue Renovation, touched millions, she knows the value of construction expertise and skilled labor. She believes students are steered away from the trades because of a cultural disposition for college degrees. In contrast to the high student-debt associated with college education, she countered, “When you choose to work in the trades, you can earn while you learn.”
Keynote speaker Kayleen McCabe
Whip smart and incredibly funny, McCabe has spent a lot of time over the last 10 years speaking to students across the country about the personal and financial benefits of craft professions. In a story that is both funny and telling, she told the SEAA audience about a lecture she gave in a Texas high school a decade ago. While she was explaining to students that college isn’t necessary for every student to live a successful life, she noticed the school security maneuvering through the auditorium. She just assumed some kids were acting up. But no, the security moved directly to her and had her escorted out of the building, all because she had the audacity to suggest there’s a path to success that doesn’t involve higher education. She was happy to report that times are changing, albeit slowly.
A simple challenge
McCabe’s advice to the convention audience is a simple challenge: Take the time to talk about the steel erection business to the kids who are still in school. It doesn’t have to be an auditorium lecture. Often school guidance counselors or tech-ed teachers are happy to have guest speakers or personal mentors for students with an interest in the trades. She says it’s up to the current generation of steel erectors to help today’s youth know they have other options before they decide on college.
Peggy Smedley closed out the conference. As the Editorial Director of Constructech Magazine, and the recipient of the Excellence in Journalism Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Smedley is a leading proponent using technology in the construction industry. Her goal is to help people working in construction to understand and use new technologies.
She insisted that the current skills gap is actually an information gap. She believes potential workers don’t understand what skills employers need, but sees lots of untapped opportunity with Generation Z—young people who are currently Middle School age to recent high school graduates.
Often referred to as the Throwback Generation, Gen Z tends to think more like the Boomers who are on their way to retirement. They focus on money and savings, they boast an entrepreneurial spirit, and they understand what it means to collaborate. At the same time, they are highly tech savvy, making them excellent candidates for taking steel erection and other trades into the future.
Presenter Peggy Smedley, Editorial Director of Constructech Magazine
Recommendations for attracting Gen Z workers
Smedley had two recommendations for steel erectors.
First, demonstrate that trade work is skilled work. She asked the audience to recall the sadness many of us experienced as Notre Dame burned. It wasn’t because the building was old, but because it was beautiful — it was art. It is this realization the steel erection industry needs to instill: there is beauty in the structures steel erectors help create.
Second, embrace the technologies that are changing the way the steel erection industry does business. Older generations often don’t want to bear the burden of thinking about new technology. But Generation Z is enthralled by it, and they’re primed to lead the way as new tech emerges. To truly capture them, give them the ability to research and explore new tech that could benefit your business.