Are the Young Workers of Today Ready for Tomorrow?

Shop wizards are retiring faster than apprentice wizards are entering the work force.

Thu September 05, 2013 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Among issues facing the construction industry today is… who in the future is going to keep the heavy equipment running?

The question assumes engineers won’t be able to deliver zero-maintenance equipment in the next few years—though they might! I have enormous faith in today’s engineers and designers to do the impossible. But on the off chance that they can’t, we are going to need mechanics to maintain equipment.

They aren’t called mechanics, of course. They are technicians and diagnosticians. Yet they do the same work mechanics used to do—they tinker and probe, assemble and disassemble, and generally make machines whole again. The problem is that these shop wizards are retiring faster than apprentice wizards are entering the work force.

The situation is no mystery. Young workers in the digital era don’t like to get their hands dirty, let along greasy. There is little cachet in turning a wrench and not much more prestige in electronically diagnosing a sick engine. One cannot go online and virtually put a track on an excavator. We aren’t there yet.

This is not to suggest that young people in 2013 are lazy. Not true. They just haven’t been raised around family shade-tree mechanics. They have been seduced by mice and cursors and little i-machines. Their days are spent tweeting and texting, so much so that an online entrepreneur, Jason Nazar, recently reminded them that “social media is not a career!”

The industry is trying to do something about its technician shortfall—making work sites and schedules more palatable to Generation Y jobseekers, for example. But only so much can be done. Young job applicants aren’t going to swoon over salaries of $50,000-60,000, and dirt and grime are always going to be part of the dirt-moving industry.

I think we better look to engineers to design extremely durable heavy equipment that requires very little maintenance. Improbable? It might be essential.

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