Updated: Jan 10
One of the most common questions I receive during my contact with construction industry professionals throughout the world is,
“What is the future of the construction industry?”
It’s an interesting question, and the future is obviously hard to predict, but given the current state of things, here are my thoughts on the future of the industry:
We have a labor problem
We have a skills gap
We have an image issue
This is the state of the industry today. Left unchecked, this will be the state of the industry well into the future. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change, but we will need to take affirmative steps to have an impact.
I often hear about construction technology as a disrupter to the industry status quo, and, in fact, I often talk about the benefits of adopting technology in the industry. However, I actually believe that the adoption of technology within the industry presents both an opportunity and a new threat.
The opportunity is clear…
Reinvent our image and presence into one that is much less caveman like by embracing technology to benefit people and improve our industry’s contributions to the built environment. This has a positive affect on the issues I listed above by helping to attract more young people into our industry. It also helps us attract a more diverse workforce, giving us a much larger pool of talent to pull from. Making the industry more attractive to women essentially doubles the size of the talent pool.
The threat is…
How do we do this without alienating our current workforce?
This threat cannot be overlooked. Our current workforce carries with it a tremendous amount of knowledge about how we build. This knowledge is not well documented, and it is not handed down well. This is knowledge that comes from years of hands-on experience that is not always easy to transfer through a classroom setting. If we alienate the people who currently hold that knowledge, we risk creating a huge rift in the industry that may have a negative impact on things like safety, quality, and productivity; the very things we need to improve.
If there is any question about the reality of alienating the current workforce, check out Mike Rowe’s recent comments citing the alarming number of men who have already decided to punch out of the workforce. The demographic being cited is precisely the demographic we cannot afford to lose in the construction industry. It includes precisely the people I am talking about. The ones who have been building our structures and facilities for the last 10 to 20 years. The ones who essentially hold the keys to the knowledge we cannot afford to lose.
So How Does this Tie to Technology?
When I conduct classes or workshops, I almost always hear the opinion that the “old timers” are the roadblock to the adoption of technology, and I don’t disagree with this basic premise. However, I don’t believe that we can, or should, just push through the roadblock. Doing so may create a much larger problem than it solves, and if we don’t make changes to our approach soon, that’s exactly what we are going to do.
The current thrust of technology onto our current workforce is poised to go one of two ways:
We continue the hard press, the current workforce says, “the hell with it”, and they punch out
We continue to push, but they push back harder, refuse to adopt, and they win
These are both big loosing scenarios. We are already experiencing a labor shortage that spans across the industry, from drivers and operators, to skilled trades, construction managers, and field engineers. We cannot afford to alienate our experienced workforce before we pass on knowledge and skills to a larger incoming generation of construction industry professionals. We also cannot afford to continue with the status quo of delivering projects behind schedule and over budget.
Technology is poised to help us improve in many areas:
Connectivity like never before
Communications improved to the point we have never experienced, increasing collaboration and reducing errors and rework
Making some complicated tasks easier to do with fewer people
Making critical but tedious tasks such as data collection and analytics possible like never before
All these things are critically important to move the needle on safety, quality, and productivity in construction. Remember, we haven’t seen gains in construction productivity in decades – technology is either going to help us improve that, or it is going to make it drop even further because it pushes out the people in our industry who carry key knowledge. We need the buy in and support of the current workforce in order to more rapidly adopt technology and to attract new workers to our industry. If we get their support, we adopt tech at a more rapid pace. This improves the industry, and our image, and we attract more workers who can learn from the “old timers” before they leave.
How do we do that?
We need to change the way we treat people in this industry. We need to acknowledge what is pushing them out, and get it all changed. We need to improve the respect we show for these people in the field, at our project sites.
60+ hour work weeks will continue to drive people out
Lack of information that forces managers into high stress decisions that are made without proper data will continue to increase stress levels
The “just go get it done” attitude without consideration of what it will take to do that and what they need to get it done right will continue to increase stress levels
Throwing in technology that they do not understand will push them over the edge
Bringing in younger workers and showing them more attention will also push them over the edge.
It starts with voicing the situation to them and implementing a culture shift
First, we need to start communicating how important it is that we get the current workforce to adopt some of the changes and the technology that we are trying to implement. We need to appeal to them by explaining that we are trying to incorporate tech not only for the sake of improving our bottom line, or improving data analytics, or reducing rework, or improving productivity (they are tired of hearing all this). We need them to understand that we are trying to make their lives better. We need to stress how important it is for them, the people who really know how to build, to adopt this technology because we are going to be dependent on them to adopt it correctly. We need to communicate that we are adopting technology to reduce the number of hours they work, and that we want them to reclaim those hours for themselves, not spend those hours on something else at the job site. We need to shift the narrative to explain that we are trying to make their lives better.
Second, we need to immediately improve the way we train and educate our existing workforce on what it is we are trying to do. They need better resources. Making them come in and spend more hours in poorly executed training programs does not work. On-line and on-demand training should be adopted – it gives them a venue to learn on their own, without others around to judge them.
Third, we need to encourage and develop mentorship. Mentorship creates a formal partnership between new and old to begin transferring knowledge. It creates immediate value and recognition of the people who have built this industry. It also creates a two-way transfer of knowledge where the new worker is helping the existing worker with technology.
If these three things are not done soon, the workforce of older individuals who hold many of the keys to knowledge in our industry will continue to leave and may leave at an increasing pace. If this happens, no amount of technology will replace their absence.