Reinventing The Construction Workforce *Forbes

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When most people think of construction, they think of excavators, bulldozers and a lot of dirt. They don’t think about virtual reality, lasers, laptops, robots and autonomy — technology that’s more often associated with futuristic portrayals of reality than today’s infrastructure projects.

But that’s exactly what’s driving the construction industry forward, enabling projects to be built better, faster, safer, cheaper and greener using machine control, virtual and augmented reality and remote technology. This is reflected in the job titles that spearhead major projects today — titles like virtual design and construction manager, director of construction technology and advanced technology manager. Operating construction technology and inventing ways to make it more innovative and efficient takes a different type of person than the one who can successfully operate a concrete pump or a front-end loader, as they have a vastly different understanding of how a technology ecosystem could or should work to enhance productivity.

At the same time, the construction industry is experiencing a severe labor shortage, brought on by the 2008 economic crash when 600,000 skilled construction workers permanently left the industry. The labor shortage has since accelerated as baby boomers, who make up a large portion of today’s construction workforce, are retiring. While technology can automate some of the activity, there is still a shortage of skilled labor to satisfy demand for projects in the pipeline.

As the existing workforce exits the industry and new technological innovation changes how projects are imagined and built, the industry has a unique opportunity to attract a new type of worker who may never have given construction a second thought. But who is this person, and can the industry reach and retain them?

Demographics Of Today’s Emerging Workforce

To answer that question, one must look at the demographics of today’s emerging workforce, which are vastly different from the emerging workforce from 20 or 30 years ago. While the majority of today’s college graduates are white, 42% are now students of color. Between 1996 and 2000, African American enrollment grew by 72%, while Hispanic enrollment grew by 240%. Female graduates tend to outnumber male graduates — 56% versus 44%, and 37% of students are 25 and older, opting to work and return years later.

While construction is becoming more diverse, it still has a long way to go before it reaches equal representation in the workforce, particularly when it comes to ethnicity and gender in management roles. In regards to race, 30.7% of construction professionals are Hispanic or Latino, while 6.2% are African American, and only 2% are Asian. Roughly 10% of construction professionals are women, though that number is approaching 20% in some major metro areas. Many contractors are actively trying to recruit more women and people of color, but it is a slow process, often hamstrung by negative perceptions of the industry.

Today’s youth are digital natives who have never known life without technology. They grew up with screens and social media and tend to respond to — and learn from — digital platforms easily. This makes them great candidates for technical degrees at universities or vocational or trade schools, which often provide highly specific technology skills needed for immediate jobs — from 3D modeling to simulations — with less debt.

While today’s emerging workforce likely has the technical aptitude for a job in construction, most have not considered it as career, perhaps because they’re not aware of the orientation toward technology. According to a 2018 survey from the National Association of Home Builders, of adults aged 18 to 25 who were undecided about their career aspirations, 63% said there was little to no chance they would consider construction, regardless of the salary, which was around $68,000 for entry-level managers versus $48,000 for all college graduates in 2016.

Targeting And Retaining New Talent

Changing construction’s perception is an industry-wide issue that needs to be solved from a multitude of angles, starting by exposing students to the technology that’s driving the industry forward. This can be accomplished by having construction professionals visit classrooms to discuss their own professional journeys, providing students with greater awareness of the variety of high-tech construction jobs available today. Many companies have also donated hardware and software tools to give students practical hands-on experience ahead of their first day on the job.

There are other efforts also underway, including by the Association of General Contractors (AGC), which is working to launch a new national recruiting effort called “Construction is Essential,” that will relay the message that construction careers, which were deemed “essential” during the pandemic, are more secure than other industries that suffered economically due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other construction companies are working with local unions to help train workers on new technology, which is a good starting point for enhanced learning as union members already receive a high level of training through their union certifications.

Where do we go from here? 

While it’s clear that today’s emerging workforce would be a good match for the construction industry, the road to capturing and retaining them is less clear. Much needs to be done to change the perception of construction and expose the next generation to the role technology has and will continue to play within the industry. It will likely take a very broad set of measures — from academic to industry to government — to expose and build the next pool of construction labor talent, which needs to begin now to ensure the industry’s future tomorrow.

However, there is hope that a major investment in infrastructure by the Biden administration could help shine a light on the industry, highlighting the many technical innovations happening in the space. This could help draw in new talent, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted young adults aged 18 to 29, giving them more reason to look beyond the typical avenues of employment.

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