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Some skills are passed from generation to generation. A task such as learning how to throw a ball may be passed down from grandparent to parent to child. Some skills are generation-specific. Name a young person who knows how or why you would wind a watch or polish silverware. Related to our industry, Gen Z will inherit the hydronic systems of the past. How will we hand off the industry to a new cohort?
The most common way to pass along knowledge is the generational hand-off that informally happens every day. If you work for a company that plans on being in business in 20 years, I hope you see a few places in your company’s ecosystem where a mentor and mentee work together.
It may be something formal, such as a demo of how to use a piece of equipment correctly. Or it may be informal, such as picking up on the easiest order of operations to complete a complex set of tasks.
For a more formal education in the hydronics trade, what role will trade schools play in educating the next generation of hydronics professionals? The COVID-19 era sparked a change in the four-year university trend. Educational Credit Management Corp., a nonprofit group based in Minneapolis, published a report in 2020 about Gen Z educational outlooks (https://bit.ly/42LikR8).
The report notes that “teens’ likelihood of pursuing a four-year degree decreased 23 percentage points between May 2020 and September 2021, down to 48 percent from 71 percent.” A key finding of the report is that Gen Z is more open to pursuing a career they can jump into right away, which doesn’t require the cost and time associated with a four-year degree.
High school graduates are considering alternatives to traditional paths. As a millennial, I can testify that I was told over and over by teachers and high school counselors that if I didn’t go to a four-year university, I was dooming myself to a lower professional ceiling. I was told college graduates have careers, while kids who don’t go to college have jobs.
Luckily, Gen Z either isn’t being sold this same bill of goods, or they are learning from the student loan debt crisis of their previous cohort and are choosing other options. In our industry, we must provide an attractive on-ramp to the hydronics world for these bright kids who are looking for another career path.
A Mindset Change
Employers may be wondering, where are these kids? Why aren’t they applying for jobs at my company? Enlist a millennial or Gen Z to help you find people their age who could be a good fit for your company. If your recruiting method hasn’t changed in 20 years, it isn’t realistic to expect a large group of people outside of your network of friends and colleagues to apply.
For example, I’ve never seen a young person look at a bulletin board for job postings. Two generations ago, it may have been the only way to get a job. McDonald’s started accepting job applications through the Snapchat app in 2017. As crazy as it seems to have people apply to your company with a 10-second selfie video, McDonald’s knows where its audience hangs out and meets them where they are.
Once a novice employee joins your company, here are two admittedly over-simplified ways to evaluate performance.
1. Try to burn new employees out:Give them the hardest tasks, the ones nobody else wants to do, maybe similar to what you had to do when you started. Only the strong survive. One in 20 may stick around, but you know they are motivated and stubborn enough to carry on when you retire.
2. Teach them the fundamental skills and have them teach the skills back to you: Slow down and pay attention to how they learn. Give them the freedom to try a task a different way; don’t fight it. Make space for them to apply their expert-level mobile technology skills to the job.
Chances are, you violently reacted to one of the two suggestions for novice employee training. While the softer approach may seem a waste of time, maybe your new employee makes a 90-second video that concisely explains how to balance a radiant manifold to one of their peers, who also thinks it is cool. They are learning something but also shifting their knowledge to a medium that will help other people similar to them join the workforce.
Employers need to make space for Gen Z to apply the skills they already have, even though it may seem frustrating. If we want hydronics to survive the hand-off between the silent generation, boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z, the expectations of the job also need to change.
A Gen Z employee might not be interested in a job where they sit on a bucket in a crawl space and clean copper fittings all winter. However, they might figure out how to 3D-print a boiler board instead, given the right training and opportunity.
Teaching and Learning
Generational frustration in the transition of expertise has existed since the beginning of time. None of this is new. Daniel Bernoulli, inventor of Bernoulli’s Principle, which is instrumental for our industry to relate flow to pressure drop, was the son of a mathematician. I imagine his dad and teachers probably had moments where they thought he was a carefree daydreamer.
It turns out he paid enough attention to what they said and had the opportunity to think creatively. His understanding of math and its practical application has paid dividends to our knowledge of hydronic systems since 1738.
The hydronics industry has the advantage of being a relatively small field with a highly technical workforce that can quickly build well-paying careers. Gen Z may be more open to hands-on careers in the field than millennials or Gen X; time will tell.
If we plan to hand off the hydronics industry to capable hands, we need to create an environment where we teach and learn from Gen Z. Moving hydronics forward will only happen if generational knowledge takes a new shape in the new cohort.