With an aging workforce composing the majority of construction professionals and alarmingly few younger workers stepping up to replace them, the industry is at a crossroads in its somewhat complicated relationship with technology.
The digitally savvy millennial generation is poised to make up the majority of the construction workforce over the next 10 to 20 years, so firms are turning to technology as a way to appeal to younger workers, counting on millennials’ deep, abiding love and inherent understanding of all things digital to be a potent lure.
When it comes to attracting and retaining talent from the upcoming generations, construction is falling way short.
When it comes to attracting and retaining talent from the upcoming generations, construction is falling way short at a time when the industry is top-heavy with retiring baby boomers. A recent National Association of Home Builders poll of 18-25 year olds revealed that although a large majority of them knew what they wanted their career path to be (74%), almost none of them (3%) said they planned a career in the construction trades.
If left unaddressed, the skilled labor shortage will only deepen, and productivity will continue to lag as it’s been doing for the better part of 40 years, over which time:
“If you look at curves of labor productivity, the manufacturing industry has been taking off for quite a long time at a rate of five to six percent a year,” Stanford University Civil and Environmental Engineering research professor emeritus Paul Teicholz said in a National Society of Professional Engineers report. “If you look at the growth data for the whole [construction] industry, if anything, labor productivity is getting worse.”
Much has been written, including on this news site, about the industry’s well-known reluctance to embrace technology. But adoption is one thing, availability is quite another. And by that measure, it’s an industry positively swimming in tech. Construction needs to get better at selling that aspect of itself. “Hey, kids! We’ve got robots and drones!” might even make a good slogan to raise awareness for students who might not have a clue just how intertwined technology and construction are today.
"Hey, kids! We’ve got robots and drones!” might even make a good slogan to raise awareness for students who might not have a clue just how intertwined technology and construction are today."
"With the millennials and even the newest generation coming into the workforce, they've grown up with technology, they expect it," Robert Kipp, a superintendent at Tishman Construction in New York City told Construction Dive. "It's become so integral to our everyday lives and the way that we execute our own processes that it's expected we use technology."
Fulfilling that expected pervasiveness of technology starts before the first day on the job. Some companies are incorporating into their safety and equipment training programs tools like virtual or augmented reality and gamification. This puts a technological spin on a fundamental part of the onboarding process in a way that’s appealing to millennials, who have been gaming their whole lives and are more comfortable with such technology than many older workers.
Even from a very young age students are now learning about construction through technology. Jessie Davidson, educational content developer for Procore, has worked with ACE Mentor Program of America to bring a game known as “Brick By Brick” to schools that teaches kids about construction and generates interest in the profession.
“It's incredible to see these 14-year-olds work with technology and just get it. That aspect of construction is the future of the industry and it's just innate to them,” Davidson told Construction Dive.
That same NAHB survey found that one of the most common reasons young people were dead-set against working construction was the physically demanding nature of job. But many jobs in the construction industry today can be done without getting so much as a callus. Drones for inspection or surveying need skilled pilots, bricklaying robots need programmers and operators. Digital models need building, and jobsite connectivity needs to be maintained. There are plenty of career options in construction for someone who doesn’t want to swing a hammer, and greater efforts to tout that fact are being made by some firms.
“It's incredible to see these 14-year-olds work with technology and just get it. That aspect of construction is the future of the industry and it's just innate to them."
To a generation for whom technology is a fact of nature, the unplugged, pen-and-paper heavy world of construction represents a bygone era. Quite simply: they want their jobs to be as digitized as the rest of their lives. That means favoring apps and texting over clipboards and landlines, and tablets over rickety binders stuffed with pages covered in hastily scrawled notes. It may be a challenge to get some veterans on board, but young workers will take to it like a fish to water.