Construction’s labor pool is getting pinched from both sides by the dual forces of an aging workforce and fewer younger workers pursuing careers in the trades. Simultaneously, the demand for work is seeing all-time highs. Similarly, construction spending are surpassing $1.2 trillion in 2017 and nearly $1.3 trillion last year. That disconnect is taking its toll, with a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey showing 81 percent of contractors have had to ask their workers to take more on. Seventy percent admitted they have struggled to hit deadlines because of the diminished labor pool.
Labor shortage or not, at the end of the day the work still needs to get done. That’s why contractors are increasingly resorting to using technology to keep pace with demand in light of diminished labor resources.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and UGS Corporation’s Q4 2018 Commercial Construction Index contained hints of optimism in spite of the challenges. It showed three-quarters of contractors viewed advanced technologies as a potential solution to improved productivity. The labor shortage actually seems to be spurring innovation, with 66 percent of the surveyed contractors saying labor needs are the chief driver of their companies’ investments in technology.
“When confronted by the labor shortage, there is an even greater need to identify meaningful solutions that will lead to growth and innovation,” said Jennifer Scanlon, president and CEO of USG Corporation. “To achieve the expected growth, it is important that contractors, architects, and designers invest in understanding how technologies like robots and 3D printing can transform jobsites and impact businesses in the near- and long-term.”
Interestingly, most of the new technologies being embraced aren’t about replacing human labor with machines. Instead, their purpose is to improve human workers’ skills and make them more efficient and safety-minded. Thus, they enable workers to work at peak productivity with reduced risk of injury.
The report showed a more than 50 percent adoption rate for some combination of technologies including drones, wearable sensors, AR/VR or equipment tagging. Seventy-four percent said they expected to be using at least some of them within the next three years.
According to the report, wearables, in particular, are poised for big growth. Even though just 6 percent of contractors said they use them today, that number is set to nearly quadruple over the next 3 years, according to the report. The vast majority of contractors, 83 percent, said wearables were one of the best ways to improve worker safety. Rounding out the top three expected uses for the technology were workforce management (56%) and productivity (36%).
“Today, our economy is being rapidly reshaped by technology and other forces,” said Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This transformation is creating opportunity, but too many people lack the skills or credentials they need to compete for 21st-century jobs and too many businesses can’t find the skilled workers they need. To maintain America’s competitive advantage, it’s imperative that industries and businesses adapt and leverage technology as a way to address workforce challenges.”
Somewhat ironically, the very technologies adopted to address the labor gap might well be drawing new blood into the industry. Construction’s reputation as a staid industry and a slow adopter of technology is one thing often cited as a discouraging factor to potential Millennial and Generation Z workers. As more new technology is woven into the fabric of the day-to-day job for workers at every level, the need for skilled operators will increase—and those “digital native” 20-somethings are often best equipped to fill those jobs.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and more contractors than ever are turning to technology out of necessity to bridge the labor gap left by a rapidly retiring workforce and a narrow up-and-coming talent pipeline. Assuming both trends continue, it’s likely even more companies down the line will be forced to explore similar solutions to get the most out of their workers.