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To Address the Construction Labor Shortage, Take Cues from the Military

To say that the construction industry is facing a labor shortage is an understatement. For years, industry stakeholders have wrestled with how to complete projects on time and on budget while dealing with a dwindling and aging workforce. 

The U.S. Department of Education found that the number of projected job openings in transportation-related occupations (which includes highway construction and maintenance) is 68% higher than the number of people currently in training to fill those positions. And when unemployment hit its peak at nearly 15% in 2020, the number of vacant positions in the construction sector remained at roughly the same level it was before the pandemic struck.

A majority of general contractors are having trouble filling craft positions, according to a recent Association of General Contractors survey, titled 2021 Construction Outlook. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, workforce shortages were at the top of respondents’ list of concerns. While they have been replaced by pandemic-related challenges in 2021, the long-term trend is clear: the construction industry has a shortage of skilled workers, and it’s only going to get worse unless something changes.

Further compounding the issue is the reality that four out of 10 U.S. construction workers are expected to retire by 2031. Meanwhile, young people are pursuing college degrees instead of vocational training and are overwhelmingly uninterested in careers in construction. Technology can certainly help the construction industry increase productivity with fewer resources, but to meet the forecasted demand for construction, more young people need to enter the construction field. 

This is the same dilemma the U.S. military has faced for decades. Interest in military enlistment began to dip in the 1980s, and by 2003 60% of high school males said they probably or definitely wouldn’t enlist. But in recent years, the Army, in particular, has found ways to overcome this hurdle and exceed its recruitment goals. Since there are similarities in young people’s perceptions of construction work and joining the military, applying some of the practices that have worked for the military can help the construction industry solve its image problem and close the skilled labor gap. 

Why Aren’t Young People Pursuing Careers in Construction?

In a National Association of Homebuilders survey of young adults between the ages of 18-25, only three percent of respondents who felt sure of their career plans reported interest in pursuing a career in construction. Among those who were unsure of which career path they wanted to pursue, most said they had little or no interest in construction trades, regardless of the pay. When asked why they had no interest in construction, they cited the physical demands and difficulty of the work, as well as the desire for an office job as their top reasons. 


In the same survey, young people said that careers in medicine, information technology, and business were more appealing. The growing preference for white collar work coincides with the decline in vocational training and disappearance of high school shop classes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. According to NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, fewer young people gain early exposure to construction as a potential career path. 

Regardless of the reasons behind the shortage of young people entering construction, the construction industry needs to do a better job of showing that construction careers can be gratifying and offer relevant skills for the future.

The Military’s Strategy for Reaching Millennials and Gen Z

For decades, the U.S. military has faced many of the same recruiting challenges as the construction sector. When asked why they wouldn’t join the military, people aged 16-21 cited the possibility of physical injury or death, the development of possible emotional or psychological issues, and having other career interests among their top concerns. Nearly a third expressed concern that it would interfere with their college education or that it was too long of a commitment. 

Despite those numbers, the military—and the U.S. Army specifically—has been successful at recruiting millennial and Gen Z workers. In early 2020, the Army released a report announcing that it had exceeded its recruitment goals for the previous year, attributing its success in part to its esports initiatives. 

Launched in 2019, the Army’s esports team taps into the booming competitive video gaming sector. The team functions much like the Army’s Golden Knights or Army Marksmanship Unit. They train and compete in video game tournaments and boost awareness about the opportunities of a military career. They also stream on Twitch, a streaming platform where gamers can watch one another play. With the esports team, the Army has tapped into an arena where young people already are and modernized their image in the process.

This tactic is just one of several used by the Army over the past 20 years. In 2002, it released America’s Army, a free video game that capitalized on the fact that millennials had spent their entire childhoods gaming. Simply attracting more recruits wasn’t the only goal. The game also intended to improve completion rates for basic and specialized training. Unlike the traditional military games they were used to playing, America’s Army was intended to give players a more realistic understanding of what a combat mission is like without glorifying violence, while also better equipping new recruits for the rigors of training. 

America’s Army has spawned several sequels and spin-offs. But perhaps its most significant impact is that it set the foundation for a wave of gaming and simulation programs intended to drive recruitment and improve training throughout the entire military. For example, to train millennial U.S. service members on how to operate the Patriot Missile system after it underwent significant modernization, the military chose to use virtual reality technology. The virtual console worked similarly to the PlayStation and Xbox consoles young people are accustomed to, helping to speed up the learning process. Motion capture allows for realistic virtual interactions without the risk of training on real-life equipment. 

Reaching young people with the right messaging

In an interview with The American Homefront Project, the Army also attributed some of its recent recruiting success to its “What’s Your Warrior” campaign, which focused on showing potential recruits the variety of careers available. The campaign highlights the 150 career opportunities the Army offers, with an emphasis on non-combat roles. The Army STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program features prominently, along with the promise of technological access and education that those roles offer. The campaign led to a 35% increase in website visitors completing forms to express interest in learning more about enlistment. 

The “What’s Your Warrior” campaign is part of a broader strategy by the military to show young people that armed services careers are more diverse and gratifying than they may realize. The Joint Advertising Market Research Studies (JAMRS) division of the U.S. Department of Defense infuses the potential of military careers in many of its messaging campaigns:

  • FUTURES magazine and its accompanying Instagram page show the employment opportunities available in the Armed Forces. 
  • The “You Have a Calling, We Have an Answer” campaign tapped into millennials’ desire for purpose in their work. 
  • The Medicine and the Military program uses an immersive website and YouTube page to show what it’s like to serve as a physician in the military. 

At the heart of these messaging strategies is an understanding of young peoples’ concerns and of their desires for their futures. When JAMRS asked young people which factors would make them choose a career in the military, 39% said gaining experience and 31% said future job opportunities would play a role in their decision-making. To appeal to those concerns, many of the campaigns feature images of soldiers performing non-combat related tasks—like flying drones and using augmented reality devices—to show that a career in the military can provide the technology skills needed to compete for future careers. 

Use These 3 Military Tactics to Attract Skilled Construction Laborers

The military understands the hot buttons of today’s youth and is successfully pushing them to attract the nextgen workforce. The construction industry doesn’t necessarily need to launch its own video game or esports team, but it can borrow the military’s  smart focus on technology to modernize its image and attract and engage young workers. 

#1: Understand how to appeal to tech-savvy young people

The military’s gaming campaign worked because it demonstrated that the military was tuned in to the interests of digital natives. Digital natives grew up with technology like computers, the internet, cell phones, and gaming consoles, and adopt new technology more readily and easily than older generations. Here’s how Pew Research describes the impact that growing up with technology has on  young people’s expectations of work:

  • Their affinity for gaming shapes how they engage with their work. They prefer to learn through experience, in informal environments where they can fail and try again. They’re also used to using a steady stream of data to make on-the-spot decisions. 
  • They’re savvy about how to quickly gather and communicate information using online tools. 
  • They’re multi-taskers who are used to splitting their attention between tasks. While multitasking can be a distraction, it demonstrates their propensity to think about how to work more efficiently.

The Army understands how to translate millennials’ gaming interest into a tool for both recruitment and training. Instead of just offering them 600-page manuals and lecturing to them in a classroom environment, virtual programs offer the hands-on experience that they crave, leveraging the experiential tools they’re accustomed to. The same logic can be applied to training the skilled laborers of the future. Through partnerships with education institutions, technology companies, and construction stakeholders, young people can be exposed to career opportunities through programs that highlight the latest construction technology

#2: Show the viability of a long-term career in construction

Young people want to know that they’re pursuing a career that prepares them for the evolving nature of work. New technologies like artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and the internet of things are changing the skills required in today’s workplaces, and many young people fear getting left behind. Seventy percent of young people say they lack at least some of the skills required to maintain their relevance as technology advances. Twenty-five percent of Gen Zers and 30% of millennials say that businesses have the most responsibility to prepare workers, but business leaders are more likely to say that the onus falls on individuals, government, and schools. 

Given its historical reluctance to adopt advanced technologies, it’s no wonder that construction doesn’t seem appealing to young people who are concerned about gaining the skills they need for long-term career viability. It’s well-known that careers in tech and medicine offer them a chance to stay on the cutting edge and gain exposure to the tools that will shape the future of work. But many don’t realize that they can get the same exposure in the construction sector. 

For instance, mixed reality tools like the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 allow users to see digital information overlaid on the physical environment. Holograms are projected through the lens, which the user can manipulate with a hand tool. When young people envision a career in construction, they don’t imagine that it will incorporate the types of technology they usually see in movies or in demonstrations at tech expos. Construction stakeholders who adopt advanced technologies and promote them to potential candidates stand to gain an edge on those who don’t. 

#3: Leverage technology to improve safety

Young people have good reason to be cautious about careers in construction due to safety concerns. Twenty percent of on-the-job fatalities in the U.S. are in the construction industry. Like the military, the construction industry can leverage new technologies like automation and robotics to make the industry both more attractive and safer. 

For example, Trimble has partnered with Boston Dynamics to integrate Spot the robot with global satellite navigation systems, real-time service data collection systems, and 3D laser scanning. Spot can be used to gather data and perform tasks in high-risk environments. Teams are able to gather field data without actually setting foot on the jobsite. 

Augmented reality tools like Trimble SiteVision can be used to improve construction safety by helping workers visualize hazards and critical services on the jobsite with augmented reality. The Trimble XR10 with Hololens 2 mixed reality technology can also be used to overlay BIM models on the physical environment to identify problem areas. It can also be used to safely direct workflow sequencing tasks like those used during prefabrication. By making it possible to integrate safety directly into workflows, extended reality technologies make safety a holistic part of a company’s culture instead of a separate initiative and this makes the industry safer as a whole.

Using Connected Construction to Attract Young Workers

These tools are just a handful of the Connected Construction technologies available. Construction professionals have access to a variety of hardware and software solutions to share and receive information with anyone, anywhere. And, since Connected Construction centers on integration and is driven by industry needs, as new technologies evolve, they can easily be incorporated into existing workflows.

When young people envision their careers, their desire to work with technology isn’t just about using the latest shiny object. Having grown up with digital technology, they understand its capabilities and they want to pursue exciting and gratifying careers that keep them one step ahead as it evolves. The image of the construction worker as a guy in a hard hat, safety vest, and steel-toed boots hasn’t changed in decades, and too many young people don’t realize that working in construction can provide the exposure to cutting-edge technology and meaningful work they desire. 

By leveraging these tools to bring together the people, devices, and processes needed to build and operate construction assets, AEC companies won’t just improve collaboration, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, they can also overcome the outdated perceptions that make recruitment challenging and attract the next generation to gratifying careers in construction. 

To learn more about how technology connects workflows to improve productivity, read the article.