The U.S. commercial construction outlook is looking up, with forecasted growth of 6% in 2021, followed by another 10% uptick in 2022. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also promises to revitalize America’s aging infrastructure and stimulate the economy.
As AEC firms prepare for increased construction activity, however, they could be hamstrung by a lack of skilled workers to keep projects moving forward. Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) predicts the construction labor shortage could be as high as 512,000 workers by 2023. Even conservatively, their analysis suggests the industry will need an additional 191,000 workers to meet 2022 demands. To offset this shortage of workers, AEC firms are looking to technology to improve construction productivity.
Using Technology to Drive Construction Efficiencies
Few would dispute that technology has the ability to improve construction’s productivity problem.
As just one example, construction automation, ranging from familiar robotic total stations to leading-edge tools like Spot the Robot Dog, produces workflow efficiencies. By automating dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks, which in turn minimizes rework, while improving quality and safety, these technologies yield needle-moving improvements to both productivity and profitability.
Building information modeling (BIM) also produces efficiencies, and not just by streamlining design. BIM supports digital project delivery and the development of digital twins, which provide greater transparency and predictability across the asset lifecycle.
“A ‘digital twin’—or digital replica of a physical entity—can aid construction projects by accelerating and automating traditional design, production, and operational processes. As such, it can serve as the backbone for prefabrication and as a more significant means for achieving industrialized efficiency.”
—From ”Digital twins: Taking modular construction to the next level,” Global Infrastructure Initiative by McKinsey & Co., Sept. 2019
A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical asset. Unlike a static as-built, a digital twin is dynamic and continuously recalibrating to represent the current state of the asset. The 3D model becomes a digital twin by enabling continuous updates of digital assets from the physical assets they represent. As-built data and IoT technology provide an always-current representation of the real-world asset. The real-time data digital twins provide helps improve collaboration across multiple stakeholders and phases of construction to democratize project information, which in turn enables increases in productivity.
How Technology Attracts the Next Generation of Construction Workers
Certainly, construction technologies like these can help AEC teams increase productivity and reduce inefficiency, but the need for human talent isn’t going away anytime soon. Technology is often mistakenly seen as a replacement for jobs, but it doesn’t replace jobs so much as it automates the tasks that put workers most at risk, as well as creating new jobs that never existed before. Even the most sophisticated technology tools don’t program or maintain themselves.
“In construction, ...automation is less likely to diminish employment opportunities than it is to increase productivity.”
—From ”The impact and opportunities of automation in construction,” McKinsey
Yet, attracting workers — particularly young, tech-savvy ones — to construction careers continues to be a challenge. Of Gen Z young adults (ages 18-25), only 3% are interested in working in construction because they perceive the work to be physically demanding and difficult, and they’d prefer to work in an office.
This can be a head scratcher to those who work in the industry and see the opportunities it provides for well-paid careers. But we don’t always do a good job of presenting the full range of construction careers, and in doing so, we perpetuate the stereotype that construction consists primarily of workers in hard hats doing dangerous work.
Furthermore, Gen Z isn’t motivated by money alone. They also want to do work that’s meaningful, exciting, and provides career advancement. The way construction is typically portrayed doesn’t speak directly to these motivations. But emphasizing the technology opportunities in construction does.
Young people are often surprised to learn that mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) are used in construction. They often don’t realize that construction offers the opportunity to work with advanced technologies like 3D laser scanning, AI and machine learning, GNSS-enabled machine control, and self-driving vehicles either.
Innovative educational programs are helping to shift the narrative about construction by introducing students to construction technology. For example, building construction students at UMass Amherst are learning how to use SketchUp for 3D visualization and modeling software, as well as Trimble 3D laser scanners to create point clouds for BIM models. And future steel detailers at Vancouver Community College are getting hands-on training in Tekla structural building information modeling (BIM) software.
But greater investment in and focus on technology is needed. By leveraging technology to its full advantage, AEC firms can work more efficiently today, as well as attract the next gen construction workforce to meet the growth opportunities of tomorrow. Watch the Dimensions video series to learn more about how we’ll build the next construction workforce.