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Tommy, one of the techs at my contracting company, poked his head into my office after his last call of the day. It was after 7 p.m., which is about two hours later than he would have liked to finish. He said: “That last job took forever. These kids today have no work ethic and ask a million questions. I wish they would just put their head down and do the work.”
I smiled a little and replied, “Tommy, when you first started, all the experienced techs working here said the same thing about you.” “Haha, very funny,” was his reply. I went on to tell him to let me know if he thought the technicians he worked with needed additional training. But otherwise, try to have a little patience. After all, it took years of practice to get as good as he was.
Tommy and I had this conversation in the 1990s, but if you replaced the word “kids” with “millennials” or “Gen-X,” it would be just as relevant today.
Why is that so?
Typically, it’s because owners come to believe the media or the myth circulating in the contracting industry, whether it’s being discussed at an association meeting or in a social media chat group. Sometimes, it’s because you had a bad experience with the younger generation or you’ve heard bad results from your fellow contractors.
Normally, it’s because you’ve attempted to work with them in a misguided way. I know because I had to rewire myself years ago at my own company.
I was all of 30 years of age and I was at the shop complaining to the service manager about the techs when my dad overheard me.
He pulled me aside and said: “If you want employees to do what you want just because you said so, you were born 50 years too late. That ship sailed when unions and more came into vogue. Unions came about because business owners (just like us) had an unfair playing field. Today, employees want to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it before they’re willing to comply. That has to be coupled with their own good reasons to do so.”
Yes, this was back in the late 1980s!
Bad rap based on myth
The truth is that the bad rap younger generations get is based on a myth, which, if not overcome, will harm your business because you’ll be missing out on some of the best employees you may ever have. I base this on my own great experience taking young, willing people with no skills to young, willing people with great skills trained our way.
Let’s face it: being a technician has a short shelf life. A tech who gets in the game at age 21 hits their prime around the age of 25. They tend to have maybe 15 prime years ahead of them. After that, a few things start to happen. No. 1, the body starts to talk to you in ways you can’t imagine when you’re young. You know what I mean if you’ve been in the field working hard and are now 40 years of age and up.
In seminars and workshops, I ask attendees to all raise their right hand and leave it up. Then, I say, “If you’re over 40, leave your hand up.” The younger people put their hands down. I then continue with, “How many of you have knees and a back that feel the same as they did when you were 20 or even 30 years old?” The hands pretty much all go down. I finish up by saying, “We techs pay the price for the work we do with our bodies.”
I’m sure if you worked in the field, you too can attest to the lasting impact the trades can have on the back, the knees, the hands and a whole lot more.
Here’s what else happens. When you’re 25, you have enough experience and the energy to correct your mistakes. At 40, all of a sudden something weird starts to happen; you need reading glasses to see, and patience begins to wane. Then being systematic becomes harder, so you start to chase the one weird call that beat you so it never does again. That’s a bad thing.
The point is, if you don’t hire any millennials or Gen-Xers, you will eventually run out of people to hire. It’s inevitable.
The first step is to stop lumping all millennials/Gen-Xers into one “loser” bucket. Instead, separate them into two buckets: willing and unwilling.
If you hire willing people and offer them a career rather than a job, explain to them how what they are doing is important and meaningful in terms of public safety and helping the planet, they will give you the best of their energy, time, attention — and more.
This isn’t just what I think will happen; it’s what is happening at pretty much every company I’ve worked with for more than 19 years as a consultant across the United States and Canada.
The one thing that has changed about these two generations is they grew up doing research online, so they will Google-stalk your company, look you up on Glassdoor, and check you out on social media.
At the interview, they will likely know a lot more about you than you know about them, so you need to make sure the image of your company is aligned with a culture that will allow you to attract and retain these willing people.
Offer careers, not jobs
The other thing to consider is there are a lot of younger people working in dead-end jobs. These jobs might pay OK, but these people know they aren’t going anywhere.
Here’s my personal example from my own time at my family business. I was always looking for young, willing people to start as apprentices and work their way up the company organizational chart with the training I provided. We typically paid about what someone could make being a pizza delivery person; way back then, it was around $10 an hour.
One day in my recruiting and hiring process, a guy who was a talented undersea welder making $30 an hour showed up. I told him I valued his experience and it would be helpful, but there were no skipping steps; he’d have to start at $10 an hour for three months before he would move up.
He said to me, “I’ll do it.” I asked why; he replied, “I’m sick of living out of a backpack. I want to settle down and have a career. I see no future in what I’m doing, but I see a future here.”
The update to the story is he rose up the org chart quickly and is now the installation manager. He’s happy with the decision to join us, and we’re ecstatic that he did.
When you interview people in their early 20s and address their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), explain the value of the career path you offer. You will always be surprised. When you hire willing people, provide skills and explain why their job matters, they just may turn out to be your best employees yet.
Actually, I’ll bet on that!