The New Workforce’s Role in Transforming Our Infrastructure

October 24, 2016

By John Dietrick, Michael Baker International, Senior Vice President, Highway and Bridge Practice Director

John Dietrick, Senior Vice President, Highway and Bridge Practice Director
We’ve all heard a lot about the new generation of employees that currently is emerging in our workforce, and we’ve all been told that they don’t think and act like we did when we were their age. Well, the new generational wave has officially hit the shore. The so-called “Millennial Generation,” born between 1980 and 2000, is, as of 2015, statistically the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, according to the recently released 2016 Millennial Impact Report.
And yes, Millennials have different ideas of what it means to have a happy and successful career than those of us who were children of the “Greatest Generation.” Attracting the best talent of this new generation, and keeping them engaged and on track, in alignment with their definition of success, will be an ongoing challenge for the transportation engineering profession.
The good news is that the very opportunities this generation yearns for are available in spades in our profession, and the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the coming transformation and rebuilding of our infrastructure should be tremendously enticing to them. The work we’re engaged in – designing, constructing and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure – dovetails beautifully with what this incoming generation of innovators and engineers seeks.
Anyone with teenage kids knows that this young generation thrives on connectivity. The pervasiveness of Wi-Fi and smart phones has provided young people with abundant access to information and ideas – access that didn’t exist for earlier generations. The new generation values collaboration and cooperation and flourishes in an environment where the exchange of ideas is seamless. I’ve noticed it in my own children – these kids know how to network, draw out ideas from others, and communicate. Teamwork is the oil that runs the engine of the consulting profession, and those who know how to collaborate across geographic and cultural barriers are destined to rise to the top and make great things happen.
Millennials want work that has a defined purpose. As the Millennial Impact Report points out, they don’t want “busy work” – they want their efforts translated into meaningful, impactful results.  What better way to enjoy the fruits of your labor than to participate in the construction of a sleek new bridge over a river that will enhance the landscape for 100 years? Or work on the design of a new transit system that will provide mobility and opportunity to millions of people of all economic backgrounds?
Unlike older generations, Millennials have grown up with public service requirements in high school and, in some cases, college and middle school. They haven’t just been told about the positive benefits of public service, they’ve lived it. And they want more. In the summer of 2016, Michael Baker International partnered with a nonprofit organization, Bridges to Prosperity, to build a footbridge in a remote, underprivileged community in Nicaragua. The number of volunteers from our pool of young employees was overwhelming. The emergence in our profession of nonprofit groups such as Bridges to Prosperity, and the commitment of companies like ours to support them, speaks volumes to younger employees looking to make a difference in their world.
Contrary to popular belief, the younger generation does not see government as the primary vehicle to enact change. Recent studies have shown that the number of graduates seeking employment in the government sector has steadily declined in this decade. They’ve grown up in an era of Washington gridlock and dysfunction. The private sector, including engineering consulting firms, needs to be the avenue for tech-savvy young people to apply their creativity to repair, preserve and enhance our infrastructure better, faster and cheaper. Technology such as unmanned aircraft systems and driverless vehicles already are emerging and will change our transportation systems in profound ways. Who will leverage the creativity and talents of the Millennials to help bring these positive changes to fruition?
As a profession, we have the opportunity to represent an attractive choice where the best and brightest of the new generation can create fruitful careers. By articulating the tangible ability of engineers to make a difference in the world, providing opportunities for meaningful public service, and enabling positive work/life balance, our profession can be the beneficiary of a surge of new creativity and talent.
The myths you’ve been told about the young generation’s “me-first” entitlement, complacency and social awkwardness are largely untrue. This group is poised to breathe much needed passion, commitment and creativity into our business. For the first time in many years, as we approach the 2016 election, both major political parties appear to be committed to beginning the difficult job of rebuilding our infrastructure and providing America better, safer and faster ways to travel and commute. We have the opportunity to provide fertile ground for the optimism, creativity and enthusiasm of this new generation, and that’s exactly what will be needed for the challenge we face of transforming our infrastructure.