Unsafe generation. New people entering the workforce, the Millennials, are unskilled and unsafe. Hear safety expert Elaine Cullen explain why it’s not their fault.
Elaine co-authored the National Academies of Science study, which partly focused on generational differences in workers. In this podcast, she tells why new workers are weak in mathematics, the sciences, and tool use. This makes them safety hazards looking for a place to happen.
Many are quick to judge these new employees as stupid, but she is quick to defend them. Elaine says their lack of training is due to many reasons, including changes in school curricula, budget cutbacks in schools, and, yes, video games.
Elaine Cullen was the first female in the United States to do coal mine studies on safety. Her credentials also include work at NIOSH and The Bureau Of Mines. Elaine is CEO of Prima Consulting Services based in Chattaroy, Wash., near Spokane.
Scroll down for a link to her study with the National Academies of Science.
Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Visit our website at CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.
Dan Clark: The newest generation of workers is unsafe? The young people born between 1982 and 2002—the Millennials—are getting injured more on the job. They have greater workplace accidents and fatalities than previous generations entering the workforce. Why?
Hello, I’m Dan Clark. Today, we’re talking with Elaine Cullen, an expert on safety. Elaine was the first woman in the U.S. to do safety research in an underground coal mine. She’s worked with the Bureau Of Mines and the Spokane Research Laboratory, part of NIOSH. Elaine is now head of Prima Consulting Services, and we’re talking with her from her office near Spokane, WA. Hi, Elaine.
Elaine: Hi, how are you doing?
Dan: I’m well. The Millennials. They go by other names—Generation Y, Generation Next, the Echo Boomers. But no matter what they’re called, they just have a higher accident and injury rate.
Elaine: That’s correct.
Dan: Can you tell us about your research?
Elaine: Sure. Now, I’ve spent my life working in high-risk industries. Mining. Oil and gas. When you look at those types of jobs that have inherent risks, a new person coming in really needs to be aware of hazards, aware of risks. And what we’re seeing is that the young people are having a hard time identifying those. And so, across the board, it doesn’t really matter what industry you’re working with, you’re seeing higher injury and fatality rates for that younger generation. Well, that’s unacceptable from a safety perspective.
Dan: That’s amazing.
Elaine: I am involved in a major study here with the National Academies Of Science, that was just published last year, on the workforce of the future. One of the things that we saw is that the two generations that have the highest fatality rates are those who are 24 and younger, and those who are 55 and older.
So, when you think about the fact that it takes about eight to 10 years to develop expertise, and by that I mean some kind of occupational wisdom. Not how to do your job, but what to do when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to. And if people are getting hurt or killed before they ever get eight to 10 years of experience, we’ve got a problem. And that’s something we have to work on.
Dan: Hmm. Well, I can understand how workers 55+ might not have the nervous system snap that they used to. But it fascinates me that the Millennials are not able to learn as quickly as their predecessors. Tell us about why you think that is.
Elaine: Well, there are some changes in this workforce. They don’t look the same as the workers that came into the workforce, say, 30 years ago. First of all, they are much more diverse demographically. And I’m going to point my remarks toward the industries I’ve worked with because those are the ones I’m familiar with.
When you’re working in a high-risk industry, they have tended to be pretty homogeneous about it. I mean, mostly male. Let’s be honest about it. So, what we’ve got now are women coming into the workforce. We’ve go people from different national cultures coming into the workforce. This is the most technologically skilled group that’s ever tried to come into the workforce.
But one of the things that they lack is what we call STEM skills. These are science, technology, engineering, and math. And I’m not talking about people who are engineers who are trained and have degrees in that. But who have basic knowledge about things like simple machines, or basic math. What’s happening is that when they come into this workforce and they have very little training, if any, on the old skills—using basic hand tools, or how to fix equipment, how machines work. What they don’t have is an understanding of what the hazards are.
I was talking to a friend, who’s actually a safety director down in west Texas for an oil drilling company. He believes that one of the things that’s happening is that these younger generations have grown-up playing video games. These games have gotten much more realistic. They are virtual worlds, really. But a lot of them include things that are violent. You can shoot people, you can go to war, you can do all of these things. But when you die, all you have to do is hit the reset button. And he said what he is seeing is that there’s not understanding that there’s no reset button in life.
Elaine: So, in his opinion, “What in the world, you know, you’re going to get hurt doing that.” And they have no understanding that that is possible. I don’t know. I mean, that would be an interesting thing to research.
Dan: But also, how did they do in metal shop? How did they do in wood shop?
Elaine: Well, what we heard was that those kinds of training opportunities, if you will, the shop classes, are being dropped. Have been dropped in a lot of school districts because of the expense of setting up a classroom like that. In maintaining it. And also, because of the liability. You know, if somebody gets hurt in there, it used to be, well, everybody felt bad about it and they would provide assistance with medical expenses, or whatever. But now the school districts are going to get sued. So what they’ve done is dropped those classes.
As I’ve traveled around the country and talked to different employers out on the worksite, and I asked them. I said “Who will you be looking for? Who do you want to hire?” Well, they all say the same thing. They want farm kids. Because farm kids have, first of all, a work ethic. They know that you have to be dependable, that you have to come to work when you’re supposed to, when you said you were going too. But they also have a knowledge of basic hand tools.
When I would to talk to them about “Well, what kind of training would you like to see?” And they would include this. Basic hand tools. The difference between a hammer and monkey wrench. And I was just astounded. (laughs) You know, because that’s something that people in my generation know. But that’s not the truth with younger generations. Now, they’re pretty good with things like programming DVR’s, which I’m not. (laughs) So it’s a training issue.
Dan: Well, the younger generation came out of the womb with a keyboard. But they haven’t been in the garage working on their cars like dad may have because cars are so much more complicated now.
Elaine: That’s right.
Dan: So, what you think the solution is to be able to make sure that these younger workers are safe?
Elaine: Well, I am really convinced that the solution lies with the first-line supervisors. I’m not talking here about managers. There’s a big difference. Managers manage resources, time, things. But you have to lead people.
People who are the first-line supervisors, it is generally their job to keep their crew safe. To let them know if they’re doing something that is hazardous. To help coach and mentor them. And that’s not really happening. What happens in a work environment, very often, is that people are promoted to be supervisors because they were very good at what they were doing, whatever their job was. So they are given a different job, given no training whatsoever. Their job now is to get people to do things, not to do the work themselves.
So, I believe that what we need to do—and this, by the way, is a recommendation from the National Academies Of Science and that report—is that we need to develop training for these first-line supervisors in things like recognizing generational differences, looking at cultural differences. Whether the demographic is a gender one. Everybody laughs when you asked the question, “Do men and women see the world differently?” Because it’s so obvious that we do, the question is “Okay, so what do you do about that?” In the workplace does that make a difference? And the answer is “Yes, it does.”
It also makes a difference with those generations because they all see the workplace differently as well. Their approach to work, their approach to what they are willing to do. Whether or not they’ll ask for help. So the first-line supervisors are really the key.
Another recommendation—and we were pretty startled—in almost every industry they’re looking at the wholesale retirement of the Traditionals and the Baby Boomers at the same time that they’re also looking at expansion. None of them have enough workers. None of them do. Qualified workers. Competent workers that they can turn into the people that they need to do their work.
So, you’ve got this workforce crisis. You’ve got a high rate of unemployment. You’ve got industries that have really good paying jobs and can’t get the workers that they need. The answer here is training. You’ve got to train the supervisors in how to deal with differences in the workforce and how to train them.
You also need to find ways to retain your experts. Those Traditionals and those Baby Boomers who have survived on these jobs for 35-40 years because they knew how to do it right, or they learned how to do it right. They can be the mentors and the coaches to help this new generation come up to speed and to stay safe, stay alive until they become experts themselves.
Dan: Mm-hm. But the problem is the Millennials are not going to want to stay in the same job for their entire career. So, they’ll get trained and then they’ll want to move on!
Elaine: That’s exactly right. They are not loyal to organizations like the earlier two generations were. They do not expect to spend their life working for the same company. They’ve seen what happened to their parents, their grandparents and they don’t think that that’s a reasonable thing.
That’s another thing that companies are going to have to understand. They’re going to have to develop some retention strategies. For example, finding out what these workers want. What is it that they value? Generally speaking, they value free time and living. They work to live.
Dan: Huh. Yeah, because the Boomers and their parents, the Traditionals, don’t operate like that.
Elaine: Right. The earlier generations defined themselves by what they did. They lived to work. That’s not the case with Gen X and Gen Y. They work to live. They have jobs so that they can do the kinds of things that they like to do. They like having experiences. They like to try different things. They like high-tech toys, that kind of stuff.
So, there’s a very different core value there. A very different motivator. And if companies really want to keep these people, they need to understand that. They need to find out what it is, and then help these guys meet those goals. I mean that’s a fairly simple thing, but, again, it comes back to leadership.
Dan: And it sounds like they’re going to have to do very specific leadership to train these workers to know what they need to have them know.
Elaine: That’s exactly right. When we were doing the National Academies study, the cost to industry for remedial training was staggering. Basic math skills. Let’s say that your job is to go out and check well sites, or something. And then, in order to do that, you have to know how to run a GPS, or you have to be able to read a map. If you’re in an area that isn’t mapped on GPS, well, you better know how to do that. Well, a lot of them don’t. So they have to be taught those kinds of skills and Baby Boomers and Traditionals are very willing to say “Well, these guys are just stupid.”
Elaine: “They shouldn’t…we should just fire them.” They’re not stupid. If they haven’t been exposed to those kinds of things, if they haven’t learned those kinds of…if they’ve never held a hammer, how in the world can we expect them to know what to do with it?
Dan: We have to look at our educational system, then, because it’s just not keeping up.
Elaine: Exactly. And there was a very strong recommendation in that workforce study from the Academies that if industries are not happy with the workers that are coming to them, with the students that are coming out, then, perhaps, they need to get involved with the schools and help change that. So, becoming more involved with the local schools saying “You know, we have these great jobs. We can set up mentoring programs. We can set up intern programs. We can give you some experience out on the worksite. We can show you what we want, and here’s the kind of pay that we will give you when you come out if you meet these criteria.” That’s going to have to happen.
Right now they are very siloed. They’re very separate, and both of them are complaining bitterly about each other, that’s not working at all. So, it’s got to change.
Dan: Yes it does. Well, I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head with the study that you were part of. So, I appreciate your insight on that and hopefully, industry and educators are listening, so…
Dan: Well, we’re just about out of time, Elaine. I appreciate your time today. Any final thoughts for that first-time safety manager who is working with Millennials, and how they would blend with other generations?
Elaine: Well, good luck.
Elaine: I think the key, really, you know, because if they are safety manager, they know their business. They know their industry. What they need to do is spend some effort to know their people. It’s the people that are are getting hurt. Not the machines. Not be operation itself, but the people. And those we have a moral and legal obligation to keep safe.
Our injury rates are going up across the board in manufacturing as well as the high-risk industries. Construction, etc., and that’s because we have a lot of new people coming in that don’t understand the hazards. They need to understand their people, and then they’ll be able to keep them safe.
Dan: That is a great final thought, and we appreciate your time today, Elaine.
Dan: Our guest is been safety expert Elaine Cullen. Elaine is the CEO of Prima Consulting Services, and we’ve talked with her from her office in Chattaroy, near Spokane Washington. Thanks a lot, Elaine.
Elaine: You are welcome.
Dan: I’m Dan Clark.
(Outro Music with Voiceover)
Brandon: Thank you for joining us on Safety Experts Talk. If you have suggestions for future podcasts, send them to email@example.com. For more safety experts talking about safety news, OSHA regulations, PPE, lean, 5S, or Continuous Improvement, go to CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.
The study from the National Academies Of Science is here.
Elaine Cullen photo © ® Gonzaga University; Worker images by Washington State Department of Labor & Industries
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