Page Header Image

Different Generations, Different Priorities: How Businesses in the Trades Can Navigate the “Great Resignation”

By Julie Anderson

“The Great Resignation” was coined by Anthony Klotz an associate professor of management at May Business School at Texas A&M University in early 2021 to characterize the exodus of the American workforce.  The phrase has then been burned into our collective psyche as 4.5M (and counting) workers have voluntarily resigned.  But is this phenomenon new? 

What’s going on now is different than a traditional labor strike, which is caused by the mass refusal of employees to work in response to dangerous working conditions, unfair treatment, low wages, or any other workplace grievance that negatively impacts workers’ safety or well-being. Our current situation is much more informal and less organized. It’s a personal choice  happening across multiple industries in a variety of white and blue collar occupations across various economic levels, driven by Americans re-assessing their priorities and lives during the pandemic.

Historically, economies have bounced back from “temporary” work stoppages or worker shortages by quickly fulfilling workers’ demands at a company or industry level: increasing wages, implementing safer work conditions, and embracing a more diversified labor market.  Today’s increase in voluntary unemployment has many layers of nuance which require broader solutions to address the issues of a multi-generational workforce. 

This has never been more prevalent than in the trades industries, where it is common to have four generations of workers gainfully employed, from teenagers through people in their 70s. What a Gen Z or Millennial wants from the company and their career is much different than what a Gen X or Baby Boomer wants. 

The other area where we see a big disparity is tenure of service.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the Baby Boomer generation has the longest tenure with their current employer while Young Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to leave their current jobs in less than three years.  This tells us that companies need to be aware of this change from generation to generation and that traditional retention programs need to adapt and adjust.

Everyone, regardless of age, wants a fair wage, reasonable work hours, safer work conditions and an engaged boss.  But there are still distinct drivers and motivators for each generational cohort. Here are some of the nuances of the different generations and what companies in the trades can do to positively transform the workplace to keep their workforce happy and around for a while.

Gen Z (ages 16-25) and Millennials (ages 26-41) yearn for a work culture that encourages productivity, while providing autonomy and flexibility to fulfill personal desires. To better retain these workers and draw in new employees, employers should consider boosting flexibility programs, such as redefining on-call duties (or consider eliminating it altogether) and implementing travel technician programs, similar to traveling nurses.

Being digitally savvy is also critical to these generations, so providing leading edge technology, trucks and tools is important, as well as mobile apps and software that simplify their workload and boost efficiency.

This is also a cohort that highly values their mental and physical wellness, so employers should implement solutions to curb burnout (such as creative scheduling or compressed workweeks), while providing mental health resources and scheduling regular check-ins to support career growth.

Gen X workers (ages 42-57) have paid their dues, hold great knowledge and are ready professionally for what’s next.

For these employees, growth and development are paramount, but traditional career planning is out in favor of personal and professional development on the job. Gen X employees also want to do work that matters, sharing knowledge through leadership roles, and solving challenging problems through creative ideas and thinking.

Finally, as Gen X are the forgotten “sandwich” generation often raising their own kids while caring for aging parents, creative paid time off programs and a “work hard, play hard” culture that brings fun and joy to their daily workplace are both valued highly.

Baby Boomers (ages 58-67) define themselves by their professional achievements and are ready for the next chapter in life.

This generation seeks opportunities for collaboration, recognition and personal fulfillment. They are done with remote and video conferencing and yearn for a return to face-to-face interaction, and feel that milestone achievements should be rewarded.

They also want the opportunity to be mentors, so developing in-house training programs allowing them to share knowledge and experience to younger generations of technicians is key. They also are at the stage of life where financial benefits matter as they prepare for retirement: robust 401k plans, profit sharing, stock or employee equity programs are all prized here.

I understand not every trade company can create specific programs for each generation, but you can ensure all employee retention programs reflect this broad scope of motivators, and are as inclusive as possible of what all generations want and need in the different phases of their lives.

In order to change the “Grass is Greener” mindset among employees, you must re-recruit them every day.  Find out what motivates, drives, and excites your individual team members, and get creative with what makes your company a great place to work. Resist the urge to simply do what you have always done.  Don’t be afraid to make bold changes, then market to it, recruit to it, and live it every day.

If we re-think the “Great Resignation” as what it really is: a reshuffling of priorities, and remember how each generation views what’s important differently, companies in the trades can create a welcoming atmosphere that will keep their employees happy and thriving for years to come.

About the author: Julie Anderson is Director of Recruitment and Retention at Marietta, Ga.-based Wrench Group, a national leader in home services operating in 19 markets nationwide. She has more than 25 years of experience in corporate recruiting and training.