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ConTech: Can Construction Technology Fix The Construction Labour Gap?

Sourcing a skilled labour force has proved problematic for over a decade. Currently, 81 percent of construction firms experience difficulty filling both salaried and hourly positions. Few craftspeople such as carpenters, labourers and heavy equipment operators are available, and finding full-time project managers and construction supervisors is nearly impossible. Since the destruction of the Covid-19 pandemic, an already understaffed industry is now suffering from even longer delays, increased costs and some firms unable to accept new projects, causing company development to stifle.

The profound effect of the 2008 recession resulted in many workers leaving the industry without returning. Whilst some workers retired, others were enticed by more glamorous sectors, attracting young talent to healthcare, technology and IT. Millennials - raised by Baby Boomers who never wanted their children to suffer - are driven by finding meaning in their work and seeking roles that they perceive more intellectually challenging than Hollywood’s “dumb plumber” stereotype. With the uptake of college degrees preparing students for white-collar jobs, many Millennials believe they are overeducated for construction and would be unable to pay off substantial education debts on an entry-level construction salary.

Gen Z to the rescue?

Now entering the workforce, Generation Z is more concerned with survival than meaning. Having grown up during a recession and now a pandemic, Gen Zers yearn for stability, are financially prudent, exude entrepreneurial spirit and have a hands-on attitude. Prioritising salary, a clear career path for development, and an opportunity to advance into different roles, Gen Zers expect rewards for loyalty and performance - not how long they’ve been with a company.

As interest in college depreciates amongst Gen Zers, the opportunity to attract and create skilled workers for sectors such as construction presents. Despite falsified preconceptions, construction skills necessitate specialised knowledge of complex topics from chemical reactions to thermal-electric expansion values, absolute pressure tables, and engineering - which often requires a minimum of four years of learning to become fully certified. Physical strength, endurance, dexterity, coordination, memory, communication, problem-solving skills - and now, technological understanding proves imperative to work in the industry - causing construction to appear challenging, stimulating and exciting.

The future of construction

91 percent of Gen Z digital natives say that technological sophistication impacts their interest in working at a company. Driven by efficiency and eliminating the middleman, Gen Zers have a chance to reform the industry for better technological adoption, streamlined processes and simplified procedures.

According to ConTech firm JBKnowledge, 54 percent of construction companies have research and development departments for new technology, and to be competitive in today’s market, workers must adapt to advancements such as; Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Building Information Modelling (BIM), Drones, Mobile Apps and Construction management software. If companies want to attract talented, digitally driven employees, they must advertise their technological capabilities and high-tech equipment via their websites and social media - not only through word of mouth.

However, with developing technology transforming equipment to reduce emissions and streamline operations, specialised technical engineers are needed to maintain, manage and repair new machinery - which are currently proving difficult to find. "The problem," says Anthony Cooper, Managing Director of Marenco Marine Ltd, "is a lack of educated and trained technicians and engineers who have specific knowledge of modern equipment and evolving technology. The issue derives from a failing education system, where students are not supported during the learning capacity development stage and are therefore unable to apply intelligent judgement, technological understanding, and decision making to complex situations."

As marine, coastal and foundation construction specialists, Marenco Marine Ltd commands labourers who maintain exceptional strength, tenacity, and determination to withstand and fight difficult sea conditions. "Marine construction is labour intensive," says Cooper, "and - as we operate within the Caribbean - workers must have intimate knowledge of the region's geology, contingencies and demands. But this is only achieved by finding the right talent, with the right mindset and continually developing their skill set through continuous training.”

Repurposing of existing skill sets

In a time of computerisation submersion, many labourers fear for their jobs as automation and robots offer cheaper, faster solutions. Cooper debunks this assumption, stating that "traditional equipment operators will not be made redundant, but instead need retraining to fulfil updated technological requirements. The current skills required to operate diggers and excavators, for example, will be repurposed for flying drones and controlling new equipment that demands advanced remote control capabilities. But this reinforces my argument for the importance of education; if core skills are not taught and practised at entry-level - and most importantly - continually trained to keep up-to-date, labourers will suffer to adapt to ever-changing technological innovation and demands."

Technology is diversifying and broadening the job market

The simplest and fastest way to address the skilled labour shortage today is to utilise the already available workforce. By implementing construction software and automated drone surveying workflow, day-to-day efficiencies can be improved. Over 90 percent of the construction industry is male - effectively eliminating half of the population. The deployment of technology on-site brings new opportunities to diversify the workforce by transforming traditionally manual labour-intensive roles to automation and robotics control. Creating a connected ecosystem of people from various backgrounds encourages collaboration that propels innovation. Thirty years ago, building plans were hand-drawn, and meetings were conducted in person. Today, videoconferencing connects people worldwide, and project plans come to life through BIM and VR.

Investment in ConTech

BIM funding totalled $5,095,811 in 2020 - a 38.9 percent increase from the previous year. Israeli construction planning company, Swapp, raised $7M in venture capital earlier this year to expand their AI automation capabilities. And as Covid made in-office collaboration impossible, consultancies from land surveyors, architects, engineers, builders, etc were forced to rely on automation to connect digitally.

Digital Twin saw an incredible 268.1 percent increase from $12,907,929 in 2019 to $47,520,347 in 2020 by offering a computerised representation of a physical object, process or service (including jet engines, wind farms, entire buildings and cities). By virtually representing problems, solutions can be devised and tested before potentially wreaking havoc in the real world, and the information gathered can then be transformed into simulations to track and predict how a product or process will perform. Integrating IoT, AI and software analytics, the programme prevents costly failures such as corrosion resistance and fatigue testing from wind turbines to efficiency improvements in racing cars. The technology has also been used to model hospitals, determine workflows, staffing and extend product life cycles and manufacturing.

The Virtual and Augmented Reality industry also saw an impressive increase, with a 33.4 percent gain in 2020. Proving beneficial to help resolve and test construction conflicts, keep projects on budget and allow for changes in design and coordination before implementation. Companies such as IrisVR are empowering teams to host coordination meetings and design reviews with anyone, anywhere in the world, whilst increasing safety, reducing risk and speaking a common language.

Investment into the drone industry also reached a new record in 2020 with over $2 billion raised - almost doubling from the previous year. Drone mapping and data analytics solution companies such as Propeller have helped worksites worldwide to collect highly accurate survey data and translate it into a 3D map of the site, which helps to provide accurate stockpiling measurements, data analysis reports, cut and fill generation, and share progress via a cloud-based 3D modelling platform.

A trillion dollar industry

A complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, contractors, subcontractors and more, the construction industry is unnecessarily suffering from failing to embrace the technological revolution. Deeply reflecting the state of the economy, construction is experiencing the longest period of growth since the last recession, and whilst investment interest is growing in the sector, the labour market gap threatens to derail a market in recovery. With 27,000 projects impacted annually due to a deficient workforce, and 66 percent of firms having to turn down work due to a lack of staff, something needs to change.

On average, the industry needs 36,000 new workers a year. Fortunately, a new generation hungry for socially conscious, stable jobs is entering the workforce - so now is the time to utilise their developmental career aspirations and innate technological understanding to drive innovation within the industry. However, as Anthony Cooper emphasised; continuous training must be offered and devised for immediate smooth adoption and optimal outcomes.

Spearheading efficiency, seamless processes and smart solutions, digital connectivity in construction is extremely overdue. With the ability to reduce cost escalation, improve planning, and better connect the job site to the back office, technological adoption is exciting a digitally native generation ready to pave the way for a more sustainable future with the climate in mind.

Special mention goes to Marenco Marine Ltd for their expert insights and interview for this piece.

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