At the start of the new millennium, Pat Murphy had a career dilemma. Schooled in botany and biology, he had a solid job in pharmaceutical research and development at the University of Iowa. But a new technology – wireless communication – was connecting the country and the family business was calling. Murphy faced two very different paths: cellular pharmaceutics or cellular phone towers.
“I thought I could get involved for five years and help get a new company set up so my dad could retire, and then I would get back into pharmaceutics,” Murphy says. “Fourteen years later, I’m still in it, and it’s been a good experience.”
During the third quarter of 2017, 91 percent of contractors who participated in a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USG Corporation reported having a moderate to difficult time hiring skilled workers for vacant positions. Thirty-nine percent of those contractors think hiring will become even more difficult in the future. Sound familiar?
Having experience in both academic research and construction, Murphy shares how skilled trades companies can attract and retain millennial and Generation Z workers despite worker shortages.
1. Change the conversation
In a college-focused culture, Murphy urges parents and teachers to give equal weight to skilled trade career paths as they do to higher education.
“Our society, for I don’t know how many decades, has been pushing every kid to go to college,” Murphy says. “A lot of kids feel like they’re supposed to go to college, and if they don’t, they feel like they’ve failed. There’s so many kids that would love to work with their hands and work outdoors, be mobile and not confined indoors. But they’re not being led down that path.”
Murphy emphasizes that skilled work, such as his tower building business, requires talent, knowledge and dedication – it’s not just a career path for the “non-smart.”
“The work we do is extremely technical,” Murphy says. “You have to be pretty bright to do it and in pretty good shape. It’s a matter of can you step up to that challenge.”
2. Connect with youth
Murphy recommends that professional trade businesses reach out to local high schools to showcase the opportunities in the industry – and their specific businesses – and attract future employees.
“I think it’s in the best interest of every small business owner,” Murphy says. “Encourage high school students to go into a tech school and to look at your company for summer internship work or a potential job opportunity after they come out. I’m trying to get an apprenticeship program put together that allows us to go and talk to the counselors, talk to the industrial arts and FFA teachers.”
3. Spotlight the benefits
The belief that you have to go to college to be successful simply isn’t true, Murphy says. There is good money to be made in skilled trades work. For example, the mean average for construction and extraction occupations was $48,900 according to a May 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Youth need to understand that if you’re going to work as an HVAC guy or a technician or a tower climber, you’re going to make good money,” Murphy says. “Show kids what they can do, what they can make, what they can become. It’s steady work, and you can raise a family on it and still have that nice pickup truck and go hunting and fishing. By the time they’re in their 30s or 40s, they might be in a management position.”
It’s key to have confidence and pride in what you do, Murphy says.
“You have to dedicate yourself to your work and certainly don’t be ashamed that that’s what you’re doing. Don’t act like you’ve failed and had to fall back to your current work.”
4. Encourage development opportunities
Murphy says it’s important to inform young people of the opportunities for advancement and growth within your company – and the industry at large. Young people are eager to learn, he says, but a coaching approach is better than the kick-in-the-pants tactics of years past.
“You need to be a better communicator to younger people,” Murphy says. “They will do the work and step up to the challenge, but you have to be in constant communication with them. If you start yelling, they just go the other way, which is probably the way it should be.”
At Murphy Tower Services, Murphy hosts training sessions every Monday morning with his workers, touching on safety topics like gear inspections and equipment operation. He also regularly talks with his workers about personal development issues.
“Because a lot of these guys are 19, 20, 21, they’re young people and this is their first real job,” Murphy says. “We coach not just on the work but also on how to be a citizen, what you need to do, how to stay out of trouble, what people expect of you as you grow up. We talk about quality and professionalism, the things you need to be a professional in the workforce.”
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