How to Hack Brain Drain & Construction Training with Reverse Mentoring

July 21, 2017 Adam Higgins

Worried about your Baby Boomer employees leaving with their expertise when they retire? Reverse mentoring, as part of construction training, can produce big gains, and what’s more, the method is right at your fingertips. With the right approach, reverse mentoring can be easy to implement. Let’s take a look.

A lot has been written about how technology is changing the construction industry, as well as the challenges faced by Baby Boomers (Boomers) in dealing with those changes. Likewise, a lot has been written about how the industry is facing a brain drain as Boomers leave the workforce, taking their decades of knowledge with them.

What if Millennials and their legendary technological savvy could be harnessed to stop the brain drain from wreaking havoc on the industry? That’s exactly what reverse mentoring promises to do, and some companies are already reaping the benefits. Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of reverse mentoring in your company, including:

  • The Boomer-Technology Problem
  • The Millennial-Construction Problem
  • Construction Training: The Reverse Mentoring Solution


Technology is a Problem for Boomers

It’s no secret that older construction professionals struggle with the constantly changing technology environment. The problem is that Boomers grew up in a one-button joystick world, while digital technology requires multi-button game console mastery.

Boomer teaches Millennial construction training.jpg

Today’s technology--from web browsing to changing the channel on the television--requires a high level of comfort with complex digital environments. Instead of a single joystick or button or notepad, technology users must navigate an enormous complexity of visual options in order to understand and manipulate the information contained in a digital format.

For Millennials, this is no problem at all. They grew up with Xbox consoles and web browsers. The complexity of a 3D modeling environment is instantly comprehensible to them, the way that an architectural drawing on a sheet of paper is immediately understood by an experienced construction professional.

Further, Millennials are unafraid to manipulate and make changes in the 3D environment, confident in their ability to mitigate any mistakes they may make, and to discover new capabilities while they’re at it.


Construction is a Problem for Millennials

As comfortable as they are with technology, Millennials have a different problem. They know how to navigate complex digital environments, but they don’t have the hands-on experience to put it to its best use in a construction environment.

Many spent a good deal of their childhoods online. This familiarity, of course, is part of the reason for their comfort with digital environments. On the downside, however, they missed the experience most Boomers had of making and building things at home. They didn’t grow up with the satisfaction of working with their hands and creating things in the physical world.

Millennial comfort tech construction training.jpg

In the digital world, almost anything is doable. For kids who grew up playing Minecraft, it may seem like all you need is materials and a vision to make a project come to life. An experienced construction professional, on the other hand, knows perfectly well that just because you can design a building with 8-story columns doesn’t mean you can actually build it.

Left to their own devices, Millennials are very good at building digital versions of things that can never actually be constructed.


Construction Training: The Reverse Mentoring Solution

A few leading companies have found an ideal solution to the Boomer-Millennial problem in Reverse Mentoring, an emerging type of construction training.


How Reverse Mentoring Works

In a reverse mentoring program, an experienced construction professional is paired with a young professional who wants to learn the business. But where traditional mentoring puts the older person in charge of training and the younger person in charge of learning, reverse mentoring frames the relationship the other way around: The young person is charged with teaching the older person to navigate the new technologies.

Millennial teaches Boomer construction training.jpg

Why Reverse Mentoring is the Hack You’ve Been Looking For

What makes reverse mentoring so powerful is that it harnesses the strengths of both parties, while offering both individuals a sense of genuine meaning. The young person feels that they have a valuable role in helping the older person navigate the technology, while the older person feels good about offering the young person the benefit of their many years experience in real world construction.

In the process, another remarkable thing happens. Together, they document the older person’s vast industry experience directly inside the software, making it available to the rest of the team and future generations. Knowledge can thus be standardized and applied across the organization.


Reverse Mentoring in Practice

I’ve worked with several companies who have implemented reverse mentoring, and a similar pattern emerges in all of them. Initially, the senior employee feels a little like they’re babysitting, while the young person feels the same thing in reverse.

Within the span of a few projects, however, both participants begin to appreciate the power of the pairing, which ultimately causes ripple effects. The entire older generation of workers becomes less resistant to the technology, while all the young new workers learn from and apply the knowledge that is being encoded.

These companies also see yet another benefit: They find it easier to attract and retain young employees, who rightly see that their skills and abilities are valued and developed by that company.

Happy mentoring construction training.jpg

How to Successfully Implement Your Own Reverse Mentoring Program

A successful reverse mentoring program doesn’t happen by accident. To get yours up and running right, follow these steps:

  • Obtain Executive Sponsorship. When the project is driven from the highest levels of the organization, participants are naturally more engaged and determined to make it work.
  • Match Senior Professionals with Technology Drivers. To ensure initial success and build momentum, it’s critical that the first mentor/mentee partners involve a senior professional with extensive expertise and a younger person who is driven and knowledgeable about the technology.
  • Communicate the Knowledge Gap. Be clear with mentors and mentees about exactly where the gaps are that they are trying to fill. This clarity will guide them in focusing their relationship and ensuring that it is productive.
  • Have the Senior Professional Reach out to the Younger. When older professionals reach out to younger, it sets a productive tone for the relationship.
  • Set Clear Parameters. The mentor and mentee should know exactly when, how often, where, and for what purpose they will meet. These meetings should be scheduled and consistent.
  • Check In. Schedule check-ins with executive leadership to report results, discuss challenges, and address any issues that arise.
  • Determine Next Steps. Once the program is running, executive leadership should develop a clear plan for the future of the program, including whether and how far to expand the program.


Technologies that Should be on Your Reverse Mentoring Checklist

There are many reasons Boomers at construction companies should master new and emerging construction technology. Big picture, successful construction companies are really in the business of construction technology.

drone construction training.jpg

This is true for three key reasons: (1) construction companies are taking on more risk as projects become more complex, (2) owners are making more demands, including asking to be handed the 3D model used in construction, and (3) your competition is using it to work more efficiently and profitably.

There's also the potential for some of these new technologies to help bridge the gap and collect, store, and pass on the collected construction knowledge, experience, and wisdom of the Boomer generation - via construction training - to the Millennials that will eventually take their place.

It won’t be enough to use a few software tools. Construction firms must employ the full suite of technology available and use it to transform the way they do business. Here are a few examples of emerging construction technology that are already creating seismic shifts in the industry:

Companies that enthusiastically employ these technologies have the opportunity to not only to improve their own company performance, but to become true innovators and leaders in the industry. And that's very appealing to tech savvy Millennials.

In short

The exchange of valuable information between the two generations, where each draws from the strengths of the other, would be a tremendous asset to construction firms now and down the line.

The brain drain doesn’t have to destroy the company you’ve spent your life building. Give reverse mentoring a shot, and let us know how it goes.


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