Contractor’s Corner – Generational Impact on Skilled Labour

We have seen a skilled labour shortage coming for decades with the “boomer” generation approaching retirement. On top of this, there is a general change in the attitudes of people toward work-life balance in newer generations. 

I thought I would break it down into bite-size pieces based on generations so we can have a real discussion about what is happening to the skilled labour force. I grew up with Boomer parents, I belong to Gen X, and one of my children is a millennial and the other is a part of Gen Z. I believe I have witnessed a selection of what each of these generations has or could contribute to the workforce. This is an overview with generalized observations from my point of view:

The Baby Boom Generation (1946-65), which has driven virtually every consumer shift for the past 60 years, is retiring in great numbers right now and we are at the very crest of this generational wave. As these folks leave the workforce, they take 40+ years of experience with them, leaving a significant void, thus a shortage of skilled workers. This generation typically viewed work as a requirement of every productive member of society. Loyalty was another valued quality; people would learn a trade or skill and remain with a company for several years, potentially even their entire career. These values lead to a stable and productive economy and are considered a traditional work ethic.

Generation X (1966-80) is often seen as the cross-over generation between the baby boomers and millennials. This generation has a traditional work ethic as well, however, they are torn between the past and the present. One main cause is the onset of technological development which had greatly impacted work life and the need to continually keep up-to-speed with the rapidly evolving work environment. With this development, this generation is at odds with the shift to production and less value in the high-labour skilled trades. The new pressure of ensuring a work-life balance is at odds with the value of hard work instilled in them from an early age. Now, this generation is being promoted to the roles of retiring Boomers which appears to be having a negative impact on mental health and productivity. 

Millennials (1981-96) are either in their initial years or well into their careers by now. This generation is starting to realize that there is a problem in the workforce: too often, they are expected to do more with fewer resources or to take on roles having never been properly trained. This is the generation that lost industrial arts or shop classes in favour of computer labs. Unfortunately, computers don’t operate heavy equipment, build houses, or repair vehicles. Technology is a benefit to all these things, but it will never completely replace skilled tradespeople. I believe that because of this loss of hands-on experience during their formative years and the reduction of the value of physical work in schools, has impacted the number of Millennials who have chosen to enter the trades and negatively impacted our workforce. There may be a tremendous shift in society back to placing a high value on skilled trades soon as the availability of skilled labour becomes more and more scarce. 

Gen Z (1997-2012) is currently quite the range from school-aged kids to those beginning to enter the workforce. This generation has a very different view of the value of work as it relates to themselves and the world around them. The idea of working with the sole measure of success being productivity appears to be gone and has been replaced with a goal of self-realization. I have mixed feelings about this; I’m not saying that enjoying your work isn’t important, however, some tasks are not desirable or particularly motivational, but they still need to be done and should be done with pride. Becoming a professional of any kind is commendable but it can be tedious as many skills take decades to refine. Oftentimes, it takes real-life practice outside of the classroom alongside dedication and grit. Gen Z has the power to change the direction we are headed and realize the importance of a good work ethic and reverse the cycle of jumping from job to job, searching for the next best thing. 

This comparison between generational views on work ethic, education, and profession just scratched the surface. It is not to judge, but rather to spark insightful thought and conversation. 

Unfortunately, we are still living in a time when doing physically demanding jobs, such as construction trades, is considered something you do if you are not smart enough to pursue higher education. We need to change the narrative because the stigma associated with the trades remains. It’s ironic because, without people who have the physical skills and the brains to do them, the entire world would grind to a halt. 

For context, my father was one of the most skilled heavy equipment operators I knew, he took pride in his best job every day. I continued down the line of higher learning by becoming an engineer, however, as an entrepreneur and owner of a renovation company, I continue to see tremendous value in skilled trades. My motivation to become a Red Seal Carpenter was to help lead younger carpenters entering our industry. The trades are filled with smart people who can do challenging physically demanding tasks and they deserve the utmost respect for their skillset.

The term, “work-life balance” is often used to describe a utopia of our lives. We are veering more towards the separation of “work” from “life”. I have a slightly different view and see work as being an integrated part of a healthy life. I view productivity as a virtue that contributes to the betterment of society. These views are obviously shaped by the generation in which I was raised and that of my parents. 

To end it off, what is the solution to our skilled labour shortage? There is no quick fix! We missed an opportunity and now we will suffer from the pain of poor planning. However, I believe there are ways to correct the situation over the next 10-20 years. We need to continue to place great value on skilled trades beginning from a young age. Educate the public to be thankful and respect the people who work with their hands and brains connected like a well-oiled machine. Invest and promote more skilled trades education and apprenticeship programs and encourage everyone to find pleasure in a job well done and that being a professional truly matters.

For those who read this article, I truly hope you found some value and it helps you think more about the value of the talented men and women who make the work turn as skilled tradespeople.

by Dan Monk