In this article Dr. Jessica Borg and Associate Professor, Christina M. Scott-Young from RMIT University explore why there are such low retention rates for early career professionals in construction and how it can be fixed.

The low retention rates of early career professionals in construction has been lamented in the construction industry for some time. As more young professionals hand in their resignations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be a good time to ask ‘why’?

In certain sectors of the construction industry such as project management and building surveying, the demand for qualified and skilled professionals has never been higher, so the question remains – why are we seeing so many young people leaving the industry?

Why are young professionals leaving?

We conducted a large qualitative study entailing in depth interviews and focus groups with Australian early career project management professionals and industry employers, with the objective of exploring transitions into the construction industry.

A shocking finding emerged – only 25% of early career project managers could see themselves staying in the construction industry beyond their first five years of working there. This prompted further research into the question of why this was happening.

It comes as no surprise that the industry is more challenging than most; it is an industry in a constant state of change due to a culmination of factors including economics, labour resources, market forces, emerging technologies and government regulations. It is also known that individuals experience shock and stress during their initial transition into work.

However, the findings of our research reveal it is not poor workplace transitions or the dynamic nature of the industry that is driving early career professionals out; it’s the culture of the industry itself. Early career professionals revealed that lack of work-life balance, high stress associated with their job and frequent experiences of bullying are causing them to leave their jobs.

Yet, industry employers continue to brush off responsibility for low retention rates in their organisations, blaming it on a new generational trait that sees people leaving their organisations in search of a bigger paycheck. In an economy already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with talent shortages in construction, brushing off low retention rates and early employee departures is something that the construction industry cannot afford to continue to do.

The sustainability of careers in construction hangs in the balance

Australia’s success in negotiating an infrastructure-led economic recovery from COVID-19, makes this a critical issue to solve now to support sustainable and healthy careers in construction. Moreover, for the sake of the workers in construction, we need to ensure that the industry is conducive to their health and wellbeing. For the sake of the economy, we need to ensure that the construction industry continues to attract and most importantly, retain professional talent.

Recent shifts in the industry have seen increased support of underrepresented minorities within construction, including women, yet true inclusivity is yet to be realised in the industry.

Our study reveals that the industry is still a hostile environment, where poor workplace behaviour such as bullying is still tolerated and is very much a reality of the construction workplace environment.

What needs to be done?

We posit that it is not enough to ‘name and blame’ the industry culture as the key contributor of low retention rates among early-career professionals. The results of our study enabled the formulation of evidence-based practical recommendations to drive changes aimed at improving the low retention rates of early-career individuals in construction.

What construction industry employers can do:

  • Review assigned workloads and resourcing plans to ensure professionals are not overloaded.
  • Conduct exit interviews for cases to discover why early career professionals are leaving their organisation.
  • Offer support in terms of counselling and/or mentoring initiatives to enable individuals to cope with stress and/or difficult circumstances at work.
  • Set organisational codes of conduct that promote and reinforce professional conduct at work.

What early career professionals in construction can do:

  • Find a mentor (external or internal to their organisation) who can offer career support and/or guidance.
  • If experiencing bullying and/or harassment in the workplace, follow the organisation’s policies to report the misconduct and/or seek legal advice
  • Communicate concerns experienced in the workplace (e.g. workload, work-life balance, misconduct etc.) with their employer.

The construction industry cannot thrive if its sought-after skilled professionals continue to leave after a few years in the industry; employers can no longer continue to ignore the low retention rates in their organisations. The culture of the industry itself needs to be more conducive to the inclusivity and wellbeing of construction workers.

Addressing the elephant in the room is the first step – unprofessional industry behaviour, poor work-life balance, unmanageable workloads and excessive stress is not something to be proud of. We’ve let this slumbering beast lie undisturbed for too long – it’s time to get it right for the sake of a sustainable post-COVID economic recovery.