Many professionals in the construction industry have encountered, sometimes to the point of frustration, a lack of applicable skills among some younger professionals. This "skills gap" often emerges when discussing the future of the industry and how we will continue to meet demands of clients. In extreme cases, this lack of qualified labor is a significant source of costs and delays in markets where finding qualified construction professionals in sufficient quantities has become difficult.
I had a chance to chat about this topic recently with Brok Howard, who provides implementation, training, and support for an AEC software company based in Norway. Brok shared an interesting idea. This education and training challenge for new professionals creates a skills and experience shortage for employers, therefore, eliminating the skills gap is also an ethical responsibility for all professionals. "Our responsibilities as architects and professionals go well beyond our work to make a building safe and healthy for people. We also are ethically bound to ensure that others we encounter do the same."
He went on to say that extending that responsibility through time and outside of one's eyesight is in line with what professional ethics require of architect. "It is similar to hearing about a substandard or unsafe construction process being carried out onsite that may affect the safety of workers or building occupants. Any licensed architect knows that professional responsibility requires him or her to investigate and take steps to stop substandard practices. The same approach to performance and safety applies to educating and working with new professionals."
This approach to the issue significantly broadens the skills gap discussion and helps to share the burden of solving the issue between all who are affected by it. "Rather than simply being annoyed by new professionals who don’t know as much as you do, it serves to remind all of us that we are in this together and that as you become a professional leader, you are obliged to help those you encounter. Teaching and training aren't just a cost, they're a professional requirement," Said Brok.
Just as the burden is borne by both individuals in this relationship, he believes the gains are also a two-way street. "Often, young professionals have current knowledge that more experienced professionals lack. The potential for better practice on both sides is really enhanced. Good teachers learn from their students."
The Greatest Shift
Though this issue has been referred to as “the knowledge gap,” the real problem isn’t knowledge alone, it is knowledge combined with professional experience. “University teaches you how to think and approach problems professionally,” said Brok, “but real experience is still missing.” Those new to their professional roles typically have a lot of knowledge, but what they are lacking is the experience in applying that knowledge, tying solutions to real world problems, and the foresight that experience provides. That is the gap—the difference between what is needed to perform effectively and what less experienced professionals can provide.
Brok is concerned about this shift and gap, but from the perspective of one who has acquired that experience and can still see what younger professionals need. “I wonder where and how the shift came? The notion of exchange of knowledge is not new to this generation, it and the systems built around it--journeyman and apprentices, mentors and those being groomed--have been around for centuries. It was a respected and expected exchange in the trades and the professions. It seems to have shifted following other societal trends in relatively recent years.”
In general, history bears out what Brok is saying. The GI Bill served to educate and train an entire generation of veterans returning from World War II. That generation, named by Tom Brokaw the “greatest generation,” took that knowledge and experience and used it to transform the U.S. economy at a time when growth was almost a given. CSI grew out of that postwar expansion, as did many companies and other associations.
“But since that time, the knowledge exchange rate has not been fair in the industry,” continued Brok. “The generations that followed the greatest enjoyed ever decreasing levels of investment in their careers by the people who had come before them. Where mentoring was once an essential part of the growth in a professional role, it has changed at many companies, often to the loss of newer employees.”
There is not one single cause for this drying up of mentor relationships, but market conditions certainly haven’t helped. An increased focus on slim profit margins and reducing costs led many to the conclusion that training new hires and preparing them for the work they would be expected to do was not their obligation. All new hires had university degrees, while many had worked internships. On-the-job training and mentoring looked more and more like non-billable hours, potentially involving many employees and expenses. Knowledge transfer slowly dropped out of sight. Along with it went an awareness of the potential costs or risks occurring because that training was no longer robust or meaningful. The current crisis was a long time coming, but it didn’t really become a crisis until it started to become a cost of its own.
I discussed this growing shortage of candidates for skilled labor positions with off-site construction suppliers I spoke with a few months back, and they mentioned an extreme shortage of skilled labor as a driver for their business, especially in expensive locales like New York City and San Francisco.
“To date [the industry has] not considered Millennials valuable,” Brok concluded. “That is the biggest gap. The Millennial generation is poised to become a bigger part of our industry than the generations before it. Architecture and construction may lose Millennials entirely because they are not being valued by the companies and leaders in this sector.” Such a loss would only compound the existing knowledge gap and make skilled and experienced employees harder to come by.
Lack of mentoring and training in real world application of knowledge has costs beyond the immediate expense of non-billable training hours. Simply allowing new professionals to represent the firm’s work without the necessary training or mentoring exposes the firm to risk. That risk could be limited to cost overages because of design errors or poor management, but in a worst-case scenario it could easily be a life safety risk, depending on what the new professional is responsible for and what they may overlook or fail to communicate. The only real answer to that immediate risk is better training, mentoring, and coaching from experienced professionals.
A more personal risk to firm leadership has also started to emerge in concert with the shortage of experienced younger professionals this industry is facing. The scarcity of new people to take on the work of older, more experienced professionals has extended all the way into the corner offices. Firms get to the point where senior leaders are ready to retire, but there is no exit strategy for them. In the past, the typical exit strategy would be for a younger professional or professionals to be groomed to be the new senior partners, and to eventually buy the firm’s interests from the existing senior partners.
Generation X professionals like himself who occupy the middle rank at most firms are in an interesting position. “They have experienced much of the new technology that the Millennials feel at home with and are ready to take on leadership of the firm, but they also feel squeezed by the focus on billable hours and a lack of personal investment in many firms. Without someone to take ownership of the firm, the firm often gets acquired from outside.”
“There may be an interesting lesson we can take from the Japanese in this respect,” he continued. “It is common in Japan for there to be a designated back-up person for every leadership position in a company, and that person is continuously being groomed for the role he or she is expected to take on.” Because of this practice, significant time gaps where executive positions are unfilled are less common, and there is always a succession plan. Of course, instituting such a change in any widespread fashion would demand significant change in corporate, career, and leadership culture generally, but a benefit of a change in that direction would be more widespread and comprehensive coaching and mentoring.
Interested in meeting the needs of young professionals? Check in again next week for part 2!
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