Despite estimates that automation is set to perform about half the tasks done by the U.S. craft workforce, workers are still critical to technology on jobsites and efforts are growing to boost their skill sets to master tools from drones to virtual reality, says a new study.
In a February report, the Midwest Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois say that automation could displace or replace 2.7 million U.S. craftworkers by 2057 and that the trend could cut labor income by $127.5 billion, in current dollars. The projections are based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data and on a study by consultant McKinsey & Co. that 49% of construction tasks, on average, can be done by a robot.
“We’re seeing more automation in tasks such as loading and unloading, ordering materials and operating heavy equipment,” says report co-author Jill Manzo. “But there still needs to be workers to oversee it.”
Of nine construction trades studied, roofers have the fewest job tasks that can be done by robots, at 31%, while painters have the most, 90%.
In between are laborers, at 35%; electricians, 42%; plumbers and carpenters, each at 50%; and operating engineers, 88%.
The report notes the need for expanded skilled-trade apprenticeship programs, more links with universities for access to post-secondary education and taxing capital investments for displaced-worker retraining.
Zak Podkaminer, operations manager for Construction Robotics, Victor, N.Y., says construction jobs generally have too many variables for robots, which are best at repetitive tasks.
He says the firm’s bricklaying robot is known as the “semi-automated mason” because it interacts with humans, repetitively lifting and placing each brick.
The company just launched its “material unit lift enhancer,” or MULE, a device that assists workers to place material weighing up to 135 lb. Podkaminer says MULE is designed to reduce fatigue and injuries.
Operating Engineers Local 49’s training center in Hinckley, Minn., has classes for apprentices and journey-level workers in new types of equipment, says Mike Kuklok, a training coordinator.
The center trains workers in drone use and on GPS-equipped machines. “With competition, vendors need something new,” he says. “We’re trying to stay at the top of the food chain.”