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By Duane Craig
June 12, 2017
Nowhere is workforce management more relevant than in construction. It’s a cyclical industry that has always depended on transient labor, so there’s been a sizable challenge in developing a workforce that meets long term needs. And, societal factors, coupled with construction’s work environment, have placed decades-long barriers to the dream of a stable workforce. There are however, new ways of managing the workforce, as well as technologies poised to change its makeup.
Here are some of the leading trends in the construction workforce, and its management.
There is a lot of talk about construction’s labor shortage. The recent blame is laid on the last recession’s doorstep, but in reality, construction has had a perennial problem of attracting and keeping workers. Unfortunately many perceive the work of the industry to be dull, dangerous, and dirty, not to mention physically demanding in uncomfortable environments. Coupled with half-a-century’s drumbeat about getting a four-year degree, it’s no wonder people skip right over considering construction as a career.
There are many construction jobs that match the negative descriptions. Tying rebar in a highway, assembling steel components, and wrestling a jack hammer will always fit the bill, along with many others. But, new ways of building, and new technology, are starting to change that.
Factory-built rebar cages and rebar grids, modular components, and articulating, autonomous machines are just the beginning in a wave of advances poised to make construction less demanding, and less damaging to humans.
Robot sales are expected to grow at a 21% annual rate through 2020. Robotic machines that handle repetitive tasks like laying brick and exoskeletons that augment human ability promise to take the “backbreaking” out of everyday construction tasks. But what about the people? As automation continues making inroads, how will the people they displace make a living?
Just as in the past when steam machines displaced shovels and modern framing displaced timber framing, people went on to new or related types of work. Besides improving the technical training available from multiple sources, it’s going to take an industry effort to solve its labor problems. Long before retraining begins, employers need to define the skills needed right down to individual task level. Sending everybody to one school, and hoping it works, isn’t a successful formula, according to R. David Edelman, former adviser to the National Security Council and the National Economic Council.
But, once the curriculum is done, the training not only must fulfill the technical needs of the job, but it also needs to adapt to the individual. And that’s where companies are starting to use adaptive learning strategies. The interest is coming from the realization that companies have traditionally focused on skills training to the detriment of their long term workforce goals. A recent Aberdeen survey reported that 75% of respondents didn’t have “management-driven career tracks” in their companies.
Adaptive learning is an approach to employee training that uses analytics to move employees through the program. It’s a process beginning with accounting for the individual’s skills, and mapping those against their interests and areas of top performance. So, as employees develop their skills, they are also progressing along their career path. And that points to the growing need for another new trend in workforce management - meaningful talent development.
Only 19% of respondents to FMI’s 2015 survey on talent development in construction said they define career paths for their employees. That’s causing ongoing mismatches between skills available, and skills needed, not to mention disgruntled, and ship-jumping employees. And, it’s also behind all types of chaos in schedules, planning and company profitability.
So, companies are responding by giving human resources a seat with senior leaders. They are making human development a major part of human resources so they are accounting for their human needs years into the future. They are also focusing on employee engagement, and building company cultures that inspire people toward organizational goals. New technologies and new skillsets that improve productivity are making construction more appealing as a career. That’s because efficiency born of technology is already innately familiar to the next generations of the construction workforce.
It’s not a new idea to bring technology to bear on all the mundane aspects of human life. But the same technology can also act as a massive data gatherer. That idea is becoming a reality, at least in one small part of the world. A Swedish company has offered free implanted microchips to its employees. The chips are like a grain of rice, and are injected beneath a fleshy part of the hand. Once activated, employees can simply wave their hand to authenticate who they are when they need to open secure doors or operate office equipment. The chips will also eventually allow them to pay for stuff in the cafe without pulling out a card, or reaching into their wallets.
But, there are also many other future uses that could benefit business and workers when it comes to gathering data with microchips. Scenarios include collecting data about your health, tracking how often and how long you are working, and even monitoring toilet breaks (hopefully not high on the agenda). The chips, when used in a construction environment, could help alert workers to health dangers, vastly improve the reliability of time tracking, and even help improve safety through location tracking. The biggest obstacle is in overcoming worker reluctance because of privacy and ‘big brother’ concerns.
While adopting these new strategies is directly beneficial to individual construction businesses, it’s still going to take the industry as a whole to solve its never-ending workforce issues. But, it’s going to first take the ‘will,’ and then someone to offer the ‘way.’
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