Cities Jobs

Construction Workers Need Tech Skills

Complex building jobs like 181 Fremont in San Francisco, seen here, require better tech and lots of trained workers. This building will house 432,000 square feet of Facebook offices plus, higher up, condominiums. (Photo: PlanGrid & Level 10 Construction, working on 181 Fremont)

California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve its delivery. The lack of trained workers has contributed to a huge labor shortage nationwide and a serious technical skills gap, with massive impact on our nation.

The crisis is being felt deeply in construction. Even though this industry carries considerable economic importance, we’re underinvesting. McKinsey reports that the world needs to invest $3.3 trillion in economic infrastructure annually through 2030 to keep pace with projected economic growth. Construction plays a central role in everyone’s daily life and accounts for 14.7% of global GDP, up from 12.4% in 2014.

But as the world has become more digital and connected, the men and women who built the infrastructure for it have been ignored. Only when the first-generation iPad was unveiled seven years ago on January 27, 2010 did the construction industry finally have a vehicle to place software directly into the hands of hard-hats. Field workers could finally be armed with the right information, to deliver quality buildings on time and on budget.

Due to the sheer volume of drawings, change orders, RFIs, submittals, expenses, materials, and more, the back office in construction tends to be a chaotic mess of multiple-siloed, legacy, project-management systems. That has shackled data efficiency and communications over the years. It makes it nearly impossible to gain a consistent overview of projects and costs. Companies are unable to separate signal from noise. No wonder the construction industry has suffered from poor productivity levels that haven’t improved since the 1950s.

But times are changing. The pace of digital innovations is accelerating. But this is also causing a technical skills gap, preventing many construction firms from keeping up. This challenge has compounded various internal and external challenges, and the industry as a whole has struggled to bounce back to pre-recession levels.

Well-paid construction jobs are going unfilled. Project execution has become more challenging, because of the complexity of contracts, regulatory compliance, and the unaddressed but growing need for specialized expertise. Coordination between different teams working for different companies is strained by cumbersome, legacy tools. And as for the pipeline of new workers, high school vocational programs have become almost extinct, which is one reason many states are almost desperately trying to revive them. Today builders can’t secure enough bodies to get the job done.

Construction professionals need to start embracing the profound digital shift. As the leader of PlanGrid, a company that provides productivity software for the construction industry, I recently penned a letter underscoring my own concern about the need for education and training so the construction industry can reach fuller tech traction. It will take all stakeholders coming together, including firms, unions, and universities across the globe. And as the industry continues to break new ground in how it uses tech, we need to ensure workers are ready. I expect we will continue to see tremendous technological advancements that will radically reshape how construction works and thus boost collective productivity around the world.

I have seen firsthand how those who might not have been early tech adopters transform into catalysts for change in the industry, forever disrupting traditional workflows and championing a paperless jobsite. Numerous unions and trade associations are retraining workers and arming current workers with the best modern software and hardware, and also using tech to attract millennials into construction and rebrand the industry. Examples include the San Mateo County Electrical Joint Apprenticeship & Training Center (San Mateo), Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute (Portland),  IBEW Local 98 (Philadelphia), and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association Bay Area Chapter (Oakland), to name a few.

Increasingly, every player in the construction industry is looking to leading tech companies to help inaugurate a new era of agility. Tishman Construction in New York City, J. Calnan & Associates outside of Boston, Ferber Engineering in Rapid City, Colorado DOT, Chervenell Construction outside of Seattle, and Dilfo in Eastern Ontario are among thousands in the construction ecosystem that are working to close the skills gap through hands-on application of the latest software and devices.

Onsite classes and education help both experienced and next-generation construction and contracting professionals get training, course materials, and direct access to experts in the space. The worker shortage makes technology and training all the more necessary, so people in this industry can build more in less time.

Tracy Young is CEO of PlanGrid. She will be speaking at Techonomy 2017 on Nov 5-7 at Half Moon Bay, California. 

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