The construction industry’s skilled-labor and engineering shortage continues to escalate from a perfect storm—a confluence of those who left the field and didn’t come back, those about to retire in droves, and those uninterested in joining the ranks.  

The root of the industry’s labor shortage goes back to the Great Recession of late 2007 to June, 2009 when nearly two million people exited the construction industry. Many companies used the slowdown as a chance to retool, but the harsh reality is that many workers didn’t return. That, coupled with the imminent retirement of 20% of an aging construction industry workforce over the next 10 years, means the industry is facing a major workforce and skills gap.  

And the forecast doesn’t look good when it comes to pairing up the next generation with the construction industry. A recent industry survey found that 70% of firms have trouble filling positions, and 75% feel the situation will only get worse next year.  

It’s not all bad news, though: While students and young workers are not replacing the previous generation at a high rate because of their perceptions that construction work is a physical, hands-on, non-technical industry, those perceptions can be changed. By showing them what’s actually happening in the industry, they can be convinced that the construction industry is a tech-focused, engaging, and exciting place to be.  

Lure of Social Impact and Gaming Technology

While the construction industry trails behind other industries in its investment in technology, that’s changing because construction technology already is making a huge impact on advancing quality, reducing risk, shortening schedules, and improving margins.  

By building on this success and by burnishing a reputation for being as innovative as Silicon Valley and taking a tech-savvy, technology-first approach, the industry will do a better job of attracting talent and will close the shortage/demand gap for skilled workers and engineers. By showing how advancing technology is solving long-standing construction industry problems, the industry will entice prospects with the promise of exciting, meaningful, and innovative opportunities.  

The construction industry needs to show the next generation the impact it can have on something seen, lived-in, and inhabited by real people. There is a huge opportunity to make a valuable contribution to improving people’s lives, whether it’s helping them recover from natural disasters or solving the pressing needs for buildings and infrastructure that serves the needs of a growing world population.  

It’s also about bringing the “sexy” back to construction, which means bringing attractive, cutting-edge technology to the forefront. It means showing aspiring designers and engineers how those who can model and animate in 3D and work in animation, virtual reality, and augmented reality can expect to apply their skills in new, exciting, and fast-developing ways to improve the construction industry of the future.  

Calling All Programmers and Augmented Workers

General contractors now are becoming technology developers with many companies creating customized and scalable solutions to solve design, engineering, and manufacturing challenges. They are using cloud-based developer platforms to create rich data ecosystems on worksites, linking computer models, on-site workers, project management, and back-end record keeping. There is significant opportunity for customized programming (and programmers) to support the industry’s drive to develop new systems and software to help firms be more competitive.

Meanwhile, technology is fueling the industrialization of construction. Job sites are becoming high-tech, open-air factories, leveraging prefabrication, modular construction, and 3D printing to revolutionize the industry and create more efficient, computer-aided building methods. Not only does this impact the built environment, but because workers are finding more optimal ways to finish buildings, it is leading to greater employee satisfaction with their careers while helping contractors increase their bottom lines.               

Connecting With the Future Workforce

The innovative use of technology in the industry is a compelling story, but to tell it so it will resonate, construction firms need to do more outreach to students and prospective workers. They should not only be creating and expanding intern programs to bring construction-management students to work sites, but should also be connecting with students studying outside the construction disciplines in areas such as animation, computer science, and video-game development. Such outreach will not only help change more students’ perceptions of technology in construction, but by attracting non-traditional new hires who share what they’ve learned in other disciplines, firms will help bring more technology into the construction trailer. 

Construction companies also should focus more on matchmaking. Students in construction management programs typically go through capstone programs during their junior and senior years. General contractors and commercial developers should link up with universities and use such programs to create joint projects that allow these students to apply and pilot new construction technology. It’s a great way for students to get hands-on experience and for the industry to tap into a pool of talent it can nurture and potentially hire as the students graduate and move into the world of work.  

The construction industry can start building the pipeline even earlier with increased investment in STEM education. Connecting younger students with the construction industry and showing them the technology they can use on the job site and the role they can play in the built environment is an important message. Construction associations, such as the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors, should continue to reach out via their student chapters. It’s a great way for them to start building mentorships that connect students with professionals.  

Growth and Evolution Through Diversity

Construction is an industry ripe for technology disruption, but it’s also ripe for disruption in terms of diversity, which is another way to expand the talent pool and appeal to younger workers. There’s a lot the industry can do to break the stereotype of being a very male-dominated industry, such as partnering with industry associations and media outlets and creating platforms for discussions that challenge the status quo.  

The industry needs to reach into the education sector, inspire both boys and girls, and be open and proud of diversity. Skanska, a global construction and engineering firm, is one of many companies making a huge commitment to women in construction. Fostering gender diversity is one of the company’s cultural pillars, and Skanska gets its female leaders out front and center at every possible opportunity.  

Construction is an industry built on collaboration. Hearing different approaches to problem solving, focusing on technological advancements, and encouraging more people to participate can only help construction thrive.    

The construction industry can support and empower both technological change and diversity. This time of rapid change is an opportunity to change the construction industry and the makeup of the construction workforce for the better.

Sarah Hodges is Director of Construction Business Line at Autodesk. This column originally was published as a blog in Autodesk Redshift.