Z Force

The next generation on your job site is smart, educated and diverse. Meet Generation Z.

Mark L. Johnson / April 2019

As life cycles on, another generation has arrived on the scene: Generation Z.
    
Gen Z’s oldest members are now 22. And they’re bold, entrepreneurial and technologically well equipped. Soon they’ll be on your payroll in full force. That means, once again, that baby boomers and Gen X-ers will be trying to figure out how to manage, motivate and mentor new kids on the job. Prepare for a learning curve.
    
“It’s hard to get those in their 60s to understand this younger group,” says Adam Navratil, AWCI board member and partner/CEO of J&B Acoustical, Inc., Mansfield, Ohio. “This younger generation is just not going to work 60 hours a week. They have other interests. You better plan to get that work done another way.”
    
Welcome, Gen Z. Welcome to construction. We’ll try to accommodate your work ethic, but do you mind closing your Instagram apps while you work?

Digital Natives
Who is Gen Z? Not all demographers agree on this young generation’s timeline. Here are a few of the years offered as Gen Z’s beginning:
    
1995. Some say Gen Z births began the year the Internet was born commercially, i.e., when the World Wide Web went live in

1995. That makes the oldest Gen Z-ers age 24.
    
1997. Pew Research Center uses the year 1997, which pegs the oldest Gen Z-ers at 22. Gen Z spans 1997-2012, Pew Research says.
    
1999. Barna Group defines Gen Z-ers as those born between 1999 to 2015. The oldest by this definition are 20.
     
Whatever the start year, most industry firms have only a handful of Gen Z-ers on their job sites. But what they see so far is intriguing.
    
For example, Anthony Berardo, director of construction at Ronsco, Inc., New York, N.Y., has just three Gen Z union apprentices currently on staff.
    
“They’re tech savvy,” Berardo says. “They grew up with iPhones and iPads right in their faces.”
    
Gen Z-ers are digital natives—the first generation to have grown up connected to the Internet. Many Gen Z-ers, in fact, prefer chatting with their friends on devices using FaceTime or WhatsApp than meeting in person.
    
“I don’t have much on the 18-to-22 age bracket,” Navratil says, “but they seem to be socially connected.”
    
Yes, Gen Z-ers adore their device screens. For this, social scientists sometimes worry that serious problems, such as anxiety, unhappiness and depression, may be mounting among Gen Z’s members.
    
David Stillman, co-author of “Gen Z @ Work,” says Gen Z-ers are easily overwhelmed by digital content. Being young and hyperconnected online, they lack the skills needed to manage all the words and pixels coming at them. They are saturated with digital information and barraged by constant device notifications, and are often distracted from the tasks at hand.
    
“It does take a bit to get them to focus,” Navratil says.
    
A common thread in books and research papers is that Gen Z-ers don’t manage their digital and physical lives very well. Indeed, they try to fuse them. They seek a “work-life blend,” Stillman says, instead of work-life balance. Life, work and technology are on 24/7 for this generation.
    
But this can be a positive about Gen Z. Wall and ceiling construction companies can welcome Gen Z-ers as helpful technology specialists. True, they will toggle digital buttons on their phones and stream music and podcasts to their headsets, and you will have to remind them to put away their devices from time to time. But, they will be easy participants in your company’s digital work spaces. Gen Z-ers love it when they can logon and login to work. So, send them emails and text messages. Tag them on social media. Let them wear headphones when doing so won’t create a safety hazard. Be accommodating as they learn your business.

60 Percent Freelance
Gen Z-ers are achievement-oriented. Some studies show them more focused on achievement than millennials were at their age. In fact, personal achievement outranks starting a family as a core part of Gen Z’s identity.
    
According to the 2018 Barna Group study, “Gen Z: Your Questions Answered,” 65 percent of Gen Z want to be financially independent by age 30, and only 20 percent want to be married by that age.
    
True, most Gen Z-ers are still in their teens, and getting married and having children are distant thoughts for them. But Barna says Gen Z-ers place a lower priority on family formation and have a stronger drive to succeed than millennials. And this is consistent with what executives in the walls and ceilings industry report.
    
“[Gen Z-ers] seem to be a bit more ambitious than millennials,” Berardo says.
    
How so? Gen Z-ers are budding entrepreneurs. Many have set up businesses. Some pocket cash by building websites. Others have launched YouTube channels and Instagram profiles, drawing advertising revenue by being influencers in the fields of fashion, food, travel and technology, to name just a few.
    
Time says 60 percent of Gen Z-ers earn income as freelancers. And 61 percent plan to start their own businesses or work independently within the next five years.
    
“We have these superhuman expectations for ourselves,” a Gen Z-er told Time.

Comfortable Working Alone
Industry executives contacted for this article say that Gen Z-ers have a different way of working than millennials did at their age.
    
“Where millennials want to work in groups, the Z’s seem to be fine working on their own,” Berardo says. “They like problem solving. They like to see the reasons things happen, not just the finished product. They’re interested in the process—why we build in certain ways, why we coordinate in a certain fashion. Z’s ask a lot of questions.”
    
In Berardo’s view, Gen Z-ers integrate just fine with older boomer workers.
    
“I hand out iPads and tell my boomer senior people, ‘If you have a tech problem, go to that apprentice. I’ll bet he can get you through it,’” Berardo says.
    
Gen Z-ers carry some traits of the generations that came before them. But what makes them stand out, is their willingness and ability to figure out tasks.
    
“They don’t need to know every process,” Berardo says. “They know how to Google. They know how to use iPads to find answers.”
    
He adds, “They’re a mix of the millennials, who grew up with some technology, and baby boomers, who had no technology.”
    
Whereas some generations have needed some hand-holding, Gen Z is poised for a relatively smooth entry into construction.
    
“I find that it takes a few meetings for boomers to grasp the concept that Gen Z is different,” Navratil adds. “They like to be involved in the process. You have to let this younger generation shadow you on the job.”

Onboarding Ideas
Mark Breslin, an expert in construction leadership, strategy and labor-management relations and founder of Breslin Strategies, Inc., Alamo, Calif., says companies should help Gen Z-ers understand where a career in construction will take them.
    
“Show them how commitment gives them an upward career trajectory—stepping from entry-level apprentice, to journeyman, to lead man, to foreman, to general foreman, to superintendent,” he says.
    
While salaries vary by region, Breslin says construction foremen and superintendents make six figures on both coasts. This ought to appeal to Gen Z-ers and their parents.
    
“The average family earns in the mid to high $40,000s,” Breslin says. “The construction industry can double that wage.”
    
As industry firms add Gen Z-ers to the workforce, some are altering company structures and procedures to accommodate how this generation likes to work.
    
Ronsco, for example, has recently changed the format of its quarterly safety training meetings. Instead of inviting only the foremen to attend, the new meeting structure calls for all in the company to be present—including Gen Z-ers, who have limited experience in construction.
    
“If we bring young kids in early, whether millennials or Zs, we can make them part of an effective safety process,” Berardo says. “We don’t want to say, ‘You can come when you’re a foreman.’ No, we say, ‘Come now while you’re an apprentice.’”
    
By blending Gen Z-ers and senior workers together in their training, each generation better understands the other’s way of thinking—and the company gets an early jump in forming young minds and young skillsets.
    
The results have been good, Berardo says. Gen Z apprentices contribute productively during meetings. They listen. They enjoy learning. They bring fresh, executable ideas with them, making the company a better place for all.
    
Even the union is trying to make provisions to place more Gen Z apprentices on the job, Berardo says. In turn, Ronsco is trying to add more apprentices to its workforce.
    
“We don’t want them to be a set of hands. We want them to work with their tools and to see jobs from start to finish,” Berardo says. “In the past, we have used apprentices to load material and get coffee. But, they can do so much more if they start working with the foreman right from the beginning of a job and stay for its duration.”
    
How exciting that as Gen Z comes online, industry firms are developing new routines to accommodate them. Firms are rewriting their playbooks, or plan to do so soon. And it starts by accepting the value of Gen Z and letting the energy of this generation run its course.
    
“On occasion, we hire seniors in the high school trade programs,” Navratil says. “Typically, they’re motivated. They’re learning new things in our shop and on the job site. They tend to be engaged.”

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.