Older workers: Why construction cannot afford to lose them

20 Nov 2018

The industry is currently facing a major skills shortage, and with our working population continuing to age, how do we retain the knowledge of older workers and/or encourage them to stay working with us? These are the questions Neil Martin, Managing Director, Construction, Europe, seeks to answer in his article for Construction News, published earlier this week.

Neil Martin

Chief Executive Officer, Europe

Ageing Workforce 
In construction, the majority hang up their hi-vis vests and retire at 65, but the industry can no longer afford to let this happen automatically. If construction is to be truly diverse and cater for everyone, it cannot stop at gender and ethnicity, age diversity is just as important – as with other types of diversity, it’s not just the right thing to do, it also has huge potential to boost the bottom line.

At Lendlease, we believe it’s vital to recognise the value of the knowledge and wisdom of older employees, and harness it for the future. I’m pleased to say that we are seeing an increasing contingent of workers staying on past 65 – and with the same passion and will to work they have always had. This is delivering a range of benefits, but perhaps above all it’s an effective method of tackling the skills crisis. 

The need to harness the experience of our older workers presents a double challenge for construction: First, how do we ensure that they continue to be happy with their working environment and hence want to continue working? Second, how do we capture their years of experience and insight before they do retire?

Recruitment and retention 
The sector’s current demographics show that now is the time to act. There was a 13% increase in the numbers of workers aged 45 years and over in the construction industry between 1991 and 2011. This average would be even higher if not for younger migrant workers (18% aged 45 years and older) compared to UK nationals (47% aged 45 years and older). However, this situation is not set to last, with 19% of the construction workforce in the UK due to retire within the next five to ten years.

I argued in a previous article that attracting UK millennials to construction is vital to the future of the sector. Clearly, we need to create a construction industry that is attractive to young people who wouldn’t normally consider a career in sector. But this only part of the picture, we need to pay the same level of attention to retaining those at the other end of their careers. 

In fact, I would go further and say we need to get some of those who have taken early retirement back into the industry. To do so we need to show them how it has changed and the different roles available to them – which is really just what we are doing with millennials.

Teaming up
The first step is to see tech-driven change as an enabler rather than a threat to those at an advanced stage of their career. Nowhere is it written that an older workforce cannot keep up with technological changes. 

While retraining is always possible, experience cannot be coached. If anything, we need to apply experience to how we implement emerging technology. The addition of cutting-edge tech skills to deep expertise and judgement honed through decades of real-life experience is an extremely powerful approach that will solve multiple issues throughout the construction process. 

Teaming up in this way can solve the issue of retaining knowledge and motivating the older staff. It means older workers feel valued and focused on a new role, while younger people have the back-up they need to approach their unfolding career with confidence. The result is a workforce that is both more effective and more creative.