I pay attention to experts who lecture about the challenges of the workforce today -— or maybe it’s the workforce of tomorrow.

Recently, I sat with a leader who bemoaned the nature of many younger employees. He desperately seemed to hope they would all come with their lunch bucket, show up early, work late and live the job. In short, they’d be just like him.

Instead, experts tell us that many new, young employees put priority on their families and friends, look for flexibility in the workplace and seek a company with a value proposition that runs deeper than the bottom line. I wonder if some of us baby boomers are a little bit jealous of this generation’s commitment to different priorities.
For some of us, it’s going to be hard to release our attachment to the bottom line. I grew up in the sheet metal products industry long before alternative delivery methods were common. Most of the work was hard-bid, plan-and-spec and, consequently, we focused a lot of effort on cost control and profits job after job. It became part of how we defined our success not just as a company, but also as individual project managers. We beat that drum loud and proudly. It’s little wonder that many of my generation of business leaders still list making money as the priority of the business.

Lagging indicators

We absolutely must be profitable, but in my view, it’s a lagging indicator of success. We often don’t know if we’re profitable on a job until it’s nearly done. We’ve all got horror stories about jobs where profits leaked away in the last 10 percent of the job. 

Most high-performing companies focus on exceptional customer service, value-added processes and rigorous planning. Those companies attribute their success to how well they perform in those areas. They are highly profitable as a result. 

How does a company’s value proposition and focus relate to a new-generation workforce? In our company, we feel that all employees — young and old — want to work for a company that invests in its people, its customers and in improving the processes they work with. Every day, we hope to build a value proposition that helps us attract and retain talented people across the generational boundary lines.

It’s a message that has to be reinforced daily through our words and actions, and engagement with employees. And when employees belong not just to a company, but also to an industry, it helps if that industry is collectively committed to the same behaviors. Our labor partners share the challenge of attracting and retaining talent, and we need to be aligned in our message. For new people entering the workforce, it may be important to be joining an attractive industry.


Once we bring them into the sheet metal forming field, we face the challenge of meeting their expectations. Most of our job sites are weekday jobs, with hours often defined by hours of daylight. Many offices seem attached to that same schedule. Going forward, though, it may be common for our ductwork fabrication shops and building information modeling staff to work different shifts, for our HVAC service technicians to have flexible schedules, and for our project managers and leaders to remain connected outside of the workday instead of physically connected to a desk or regular hours. 

So who fits? Maybe it’s less about finding employees who fit rigid expectations, and more about becoming companies that fit the workforce and meet theirs. Does your company have a purpose beyond the bottom line? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company’s mission is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” 

I’m thinking about why we’re here; I encourage you to do the same. Your employees will appreciate it.

Guy Gast is a division president at Des Moines, Iowa-based Waldinger Corp., and 2015-2016 president of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.