I volunteered at the New Hampshire Construction Career Day this week, held at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds.  The 1000 high school kids who attended were treated to hands-on experiences with carpentry, tree climbing, pouring asphalt, floor coating, surveying, welding, and running all kinds of heavy equipment including cranes, excavators, backhoes, bucket trucks, plows, cement pumpers, bulldozers and loaders.

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I was initially assigned to be a “rover,” checking on water stations and exhibitors to see if anyone needed anything.  Then an exhibitor from White Mountain Community College, John, told the organizers that he was alone at his booth and could use some help.  He was running two virtual welding machines, and the kids loved them.  “Wow, it’s like virtual reality!” they’d say when I helped them fit their helmets.  The safety glasses inside the helmet gave them real-time readings on their angles, hand position and work speed, and when they finished their virtual weld we’d get a score for them on the screen.  It quickly turned into a competition between kids to see who could score the highest.

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At first I told all the kids they did a great job.  But then I had a few kids that scored terribly, and I started questioning my approach.  Isn’t this the generation that’s always gotten a trophy just for finishing?  So I started saying things like, “Well, that’s not such a great score.  But hey, it’s your first time, right?  Want to try again?”  Some of them shook their heads dejectedly and walked away, and one time I thought I saw a teacher give me a disapproving look.  I tried a different tactic.  “Hey, that’s a pretty good score!  I know it doesn’t look so good, but some kids have gotten zeros!”  (Well, actually, only one kid got a zero, but nobody knew that except me and John.)  The reaction was better with this approach, but I still wondered if I was doing kids a disservice.  Isn’t this how we end up with supervisors who don’t want to address poor performance in the workplace?  Do I want to reinforce the problems of a generation that isn’t getting any practice in leveraging constructive criticism?  I’m a great believer in this famous quote from Charles Schwab:

“I have yet to find a man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a a spirit of criticism.”

And yet I find myself often in generational diversity classes listening to Baby Boomers talk about the entitlement mentality and inability to learn from feedback of Generation Y (always from folks who forgot who the kids’ parents were!)  There has got to be a middle ground.

By the end of the day, I’d learned a lot about two things: how to run a virtual welding machine, and how to walk the fine line between giving useful feedback and avoiding demotivated kids.  I don’t think I did very well at either of them, but I’ll surely do a better job next year.

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