Young Workers in Construction: Problem or Opportunity?

Friday, June 26th, 2015
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For some of us it’s getting harder to remember what it was like when we started work, but I remember it was scary.

I didn’t know what I was doing, people played jokes on me, I never spoke up and I did what I was told, no questions asked. Now things may have changed since the early 1990s, but starting work is still scary, especially in construction, and I’m confident most young workers still find it difficult and intimidating.

I have heard a few different opinions on how to deal with young people in construction over the years, from ‘drop em in the deep end’ to ‘don’t let them do anything.’ I think there are two basic lines of thought: young workers are a problem employers have to deal with or they provide an opportunity to mould a great future employee.

I’m a big fan of the opportunity view, but first let’s look at the risk factors that young workers are up against before we decide what view we should take.

Statistics show that 15-to-24-year-olds are the most likely to get hurt at work and some of the reasons for this are that they often:

  • are afraid to speak up
  • don’t understand the risks
  • act before they think
  • are more likely than other age groups to use recreational drugs
  • tend to be more emotional when making decisions
  • are not fully aware of their rights or obligations

All this on top of the feeling of being bulletproof is a cocktail of danger on a construction site. If you just looked at this side of the equation then you may never hire another young person again, but it’s not just about the risks. We would soon run out of construction workers if we stopped hiring young people, and besides who would clean up the mess and do all the annoying jobs?

On the flip side of the risk is the opportunity. These same 15-to-24-year-olds are:

  • free of 20 or 30 years of bad habits and unsafe practises
  • free of preconceived ideas about how work should be done
  • able to adapt quickly to new ideas and technology
  • flexible in their views.

They are in most cases a blank slate ready to be shown the right way and willing to learn and change when guided correctly. Of course this also means they will learn bad habits, absorb the wrong information and replicate what they see around them, good or bad. This is the opportunity.

I have had the privilege of working with some great mentors over the years and my keys values have come from these mentors. ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say’ was the first real lesson I learned out of school and they didn’t teach me that value, they showed me that value. They lived it and I wanted to be like that. This is how we turn risk into opportunity.

Here are some key ways to make the most of the opportunity of working with a young person new to the construction industry:

  1. Have a buddy system to match some experience with the enthusiasm. Be careful to match good experience, though. Otherwise you will be replicating your problems.
  2. One step at a time. It’s really important to not overload people in general but especially young minds with too much information too quickly. Get the basics right and build on that.
  3. Only give them what they can handle. Pressure causes mistakes, so load them up gently so you don’t break them.
  4. Demonstrate work for them, especially high risk work. Explaining why you bench a trench at a certain depth is one thing, seeing how unstable soil can be even at a shallow depth is real learning. You should take every opportunity to show them real risks on the site; seeing is much better than hearing. Explain the crane lifts when they start, don’t shove them in the crib room and tell them to stay out of the way.
  5. Most importantly, lead by example. They see everything you do and they hear what you say. If you are always complaining about OHS being a pain in the backside, then they will develop a similar attitude. If you explain why the OHS is there and give some examples of what could happen if there were no OHS rules, then they will see the whole picture. If you say it, then do it; don’t badger them to wear a hard hat then walk around site without one yourself. Leading by example is the single most important way to show young workers the right way to do things.

At the end of the day, if you are the supervisor or leading hand, you have a choice. If you see young workers as a problem, then they will prove you right. Your life will get harder and they will be at danger because you have the wrong attitude toward making sure they go home safe at the end of the day.

If on the other hand you look at young workers as an opportunity, you can make sure they get the right information, the right training, the right support and see the right behaviour. Then you will be rewarded by knowing that you have helped create a young construction worker who can make a real contribution.

We all know that working in construction is hard enough. Working with the wrong tools, bad information and no support makes it downright dangerous. See the opportunity now and be rewarded.

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