How To Capture Expert Tradespeople’s Knowledge Before They Retire

Two men exchanging trade knowledge.

While they’re still working for you, the vast knowledge of your senior employees is invaluable. Yet if you let them leave or retire, the benefit of their mastery not only vanishes from your current projects but also becomes unavailable to current and future team members who could learn from it. In this article, we’ll look at the challenges that knowledge drain presents and explore several ways to preserve expertise and bake it into your company’s training and education before it’s too late. 

In a 2017 special report titled The End of an Era, the leading workforce development publication The Cornerstone took a detailed look at the demographics of the working population in the construction industry. Their findings make for troubling reading when it comes to the number of skilled professionals that will be leaving their craft over the next few years. The writers revealed that 18 percent of the current workforce will have retired by the end of this year, 29 percent by the end of 2026, and 41 percent by the time 2032 rolls around. 

When they then examined the timeline of training new tradespeople to replace them, these numbers gave the report’s authors cause for concern. They indicated that it takes four years for a new hire to become minimally competent, another three to five years for them to gain the experience, productivity, and competence needed to reach an intermediate level, and up to 12 years to get to an advanced stage of proficiency. With this long training cycle in mind, the question they posed to the construction industry at large is, “Are you preparing for the future now?” Given how quickly top talent is slipping into retirement and the time it takes to upskill their replacements, the answer might be, “Yes, but we can’t prepare or execute quickly enough.”

Closing the Skills Gap

In an article for ISHN, Taryn Netzer included an infographic showing that because of the sheer number of baby boomers who have retired in recent years, there are over half a million jobs available to younger workers in the skilled trades. “The future is looking bright for those who do decide to enter the trades,” Netzer wrote. “Employers are looking to draw in more workers and are taking a hard look at their pay scales, benefits and other perks. Salaries are currently on the rise and as the shortage continues, it will only drive those salaries higher.” 

Despite this optimistic outlook, employers are facing considerable challenges. These include recruitment, the favoring of theoretical college degrees over practical programs, and schools de-emphasizing shop and other trade-focused classes. Netzer also pointed out that “the need for workers to learn, use and maintain these new technologies,” is not being met. One of the primary reasons is that companies are slow to invest in training programs and cannot train young workers quickly enough to replace the expert-level employees who are retiring. 

This creates a wide gap between the need for skilled labor and the steps being taken to develop it. It’s not simply a case of playing a numbers game and getting X number of new trainees through a program in Y amount of time. The quality of the education they receive is also a huge factor and is largely dependent on companies’ ability to capture the knowledge and skills of its most experienced workers before they retire and incorporate this into educational programs for junior and mid-level employees in an effective manner. 

Traditionally, this has been done on a one-on-one basis through apprenticeships, job shadowing, and in-person observation, in tandem with classroom learning and reading dense manuals. As effective as such approaches are, they’re limited in scope and scale and are slow to complete. Given the millions of skilled employees who will be leaving the workforce over the next decade, American industry can ill afford to wait for individual new recruits to learn at the feet of master tradespeople. 

Passing the Torch

For the trades to not only survive but thrive, a fundamental shift in how knowledge is obtained from experienced workers, baked into training processes, and communicated to end users is needed. Once expertise leaves the building for the final time, it’s gone forever, and a vast knowledge base will be inaccessible to the next generation. The time to capture, preserve, and share this expertise is now

To do so, companies will need to embrace new tools and training methods. A platform like DeepHow can enable your company to retain its intellectual capital and organizational knowledge and then disseminate it at scale across your entire training curriculum. DeepHow meets younger employees where they are by breaking down complex processes into digestible micro-learning chunks delivered via video. With a few basic tools, you can capture your most experienced workers’ skills and know-how and quickly turn this into highly usable content using an intuitive AI engine that helps you close the skills gap faster and more cost-effectively than you ever could with a traditional training program. 

Experienced technicians are already retiring in droves, and in the next few years, many more will follow. If your organization can tap into their irreplaceable tribal knowledge, manage it, and disseminate it to the next generation of skilled workers, you will be able to standardize your procedures, accelerate your learning process, and, ultimately, future-proof your company.