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Attracting talent requires transformative thinking

Attracting talent requires transformative thinking

With a career in the construction sector that spans decades, Dr Gretchen Gagel shares her expert insight into the industry’s labour shortages and the need for transformative thinking.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

Dr Gretchen Gagel talks transformative thinking.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I began as an engineering intern for Lone Star Gas in Dallas Texas, and for most of the past four decades we have been talking about and trying to address talent shortages in the construction industry.

After the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), we experienced what we called the “teacup curve” in the US – many junior people and many senior people, with few in the middle due to low hiring during the GFC. Today brings a different challenge – ageing baby boomers causing increases in both retirements and job openings during a booming infrastructure spend in both the US and Australia.

Our industry seems to be much more adept at solving technical problems than we are at solving our people problems. I would argue that transformative thinking is necessary to ensure we have the talent we need to deliver on our projects. Here are three areas I suggest we focus upon:

1) Improve our industry image

Where is our hit Netflix series? Seriously, where is the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ of construction?

The ‘Stranger Things’ of engineering? We build and maintain the assets of society. Without us, no one would be charging their cell phone, or driving on a road, or sending their kids to school.

We are a vital, thriving industry with many exciting things happening yet with low visibility. I would argue that if food and golf deserve their own networks, so do we. I love the humble nature of our industry and many of the people in it, but it’s time we learned to do a better job of showcasing ourselves.

Seven years ago, John Oliver included a segment on his US show spoofing a hit movie entitled “Infrastructure”, starring major starts such as Ed Norton. His point – infrastructure used to be interesting to the public – the Hoover Dam, etc. – and needs to be again. It’s a fun watch and while it is a spoof, I would argue that a hit movie is a good idea.

We need to determine how we, as an industry, shine a positive, compelling light upon ourselves in a fun and exciting way that helps our society understand the importance of construction. This will go a long way towards attracting more people to the industry.

2) Solve the diversity challenge

Earlier this year I interviewed 40 global leaders in construction, such as the global head of construction for Microsoft and the CEO of Black & Veatch, regarding the critical issues of our industry, and diversity was one of the top issues identified. I asked, on a scale of 1 to 4, how well are we diversifying our industry? The answer – 1.85. Many stated that we are making progress, and one large government client has achieved a 50 per cent male and 50 per cent female ratio on their staff through deliberate strategies over the last decade. But much work remains.

As one industry leader stated, “We need to understand what it means to really welcome diverse people.”

During a recent meeting of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America Diversity and Inclusion Committee, of which I am a member, a male, third generation principal contractor gave a presentation on how their groundbreaking diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiative resulted in a profitable revenue increase from US$200 million to US$500 million in three years. Their organisation’s DE&I journey began with a unique training called the White Man’s Caucus, detailed in the book Four Days to Change.

Sam made a great point in his presentation – organisations that make serious progress will not only improve our industry’s ability to attract the best and most diverse talent, but these organisations will also be the most successful.

3) Transform our industry’s culture

Critical to both of these first two issues is the challenge of reshaping the culture of our industry.

In the last edition of Inside Construction, I wrote about the efforts of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce to encourage our industry to adopt a culture standard that creates better working conditions for a diverse employee base.

These efforts are happening around the globe, including in the US where the AGC of America has created the Culture of Care initiative.

Decades ago, everyone “did it tough” – long hours, unsafe working conditions, long weeks away from our families. People are unwilling to subject themselves to these types of working conditions and it is heartening to see so many organisations work to solve this issue. However, I would argue that the transformation needs to be accelerated through highly innovative solutions.


I am certain that each of you have your own ideas of what we can do, collectively, to attract and retain top talent to our industry. I challenge each of us, as leaders, to do our part in achieving transformative thinking, action and results in our industry to ensure we have the people we need to deliver our projects.

You can read about the elements of the Standard and the research behind them at cultureinconstruction.com.au

Dr Gretchen Gagel is Chair of Brinkman Construction (US), a member of the National Academy of Construction (US), a member of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (AUS), and an affiliate professor at the Australian National University and the University of Denver. As President/Managing Director of Greatness Consulting Pty Ltd she continues to advise organisations within the construction industry on optimising capital program delivery and developing talent. You can hear more from Gretchen on her Spotify podcast, “Greatness”.

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