Evolving the Construction Workforce

Today’s construction site looks a lot different than it did 10 or 20 years ago. While there is still a plethora of heavy equipment and laborers, technology drives much of the process today from virtual reality and lasers to robots and autonomy enabling projects to be built better, faster, safer, cheaper, and greener.

Just as construction sites have changed, so, too, have the job titles that spearhead them. Now it’s not uncommon to have a director of construction technology or an advanced technology manager onsite, helping to power the technology that connects the physical and digital worlds for today’s agriculture, construction, transportation, and geospatial projects.

These jobs require a unique skill set that differs from the person who can successfully operate a front-end loader or excavator, as they must be able to efficiently connect hardware with software and know how to read, share and optimize the data that emerges. While this data is much easier to digest than before, it still requires a person with strong analytical and comprehension skills, capable of seeing patterns and knowing how to optimize data for the most productive and efficient results.

Given the new focus on technology, the construction industry has a unique opportunity to attract a different type of person, one who may have never considered construction in the past. This article offers a snapshot of who may be suited best for these roles and a look into whether the industry can reach and retain them.

UNDERSTANDING TODAY’S EMERGING WORKFORCE

The workforce that’s emerging from college and trade schools is vastly different from the workforce of the past. According to the Lumina Foundation, 37% of college students are 25 or older and 42% are students of color, with college enrollment growing exponentially for minorities. Between 1996 and 2000, enrollment for African Americans grew 72% while Hispanic enrollment grew 240%. There are also more female than male graduates than in year’s past.

Technology is also much more inherent in today’s youth. They understand it, having grown up with computers, tablets, social media, and video games. Responding to and learning from digital platforms comes easily for them. This makes technical degrees at universities, vocational and trade schools a great option because they provide immediate technical skills to make them “job-ready” from day one requiring less money and less time.

While the construction industry has the techfocused jobs that would appeal to this generation, it still has a ways to go before it matches the diversity of today’s emerging workforce. The industry currently has a significant Hispanic population (30.7% in 2018), but only 6.2% of construction professionals are African American, while 2% are Asian. In the same vein, the construction workforce is only about 10% women, despite making up 47% of the general workforce.

Significant efforts are underway to recruit more women and people of color, but more needs to be done to reduce the gap, which is often compounded by negative perceptions of the industry. The incorporation of technology and technical roles is helping to change that as it appeals to more people with different and more diverse skill sets.

ATTRACTING NEW TALENT

Luckily, a lot is being done to help the emerging workforce become more aware of the technological focus of the construction industry. Trimble, a global construction technology leader, has been working to equip the next generation of leaders with the technology skills they need to succeed on the job by providing students and educators with the latest hardware and software tools. This includes gifting state-of-the-art technology labs to universities worldwide, complete with a customized set of hardware and software solutions. The technology labs also come with ongoing support and training, with regular visits to each campus and granting new technologies as they become available, helping expose students to the technology that’s driving the industry forward and making them “job ready” on day one.

Many educational institutions have recently added new degrees that seek to provide students with the technical skills they would otherwise have to learn on the job, helping make them more attractive to employers. Purdue University and Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Georgia have begun offering Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) degrees, which provide students with a wide range of construction- related classes and regularly incorporate 3D modeling technologies. Meanwhile Vancouver Community College provides students with a structural steel detailing degree, which is the only educational provider in North America to do so. The program is so popular that it added staff this year to accommodate the large influx of students, some of whom attend remote classes from as far away as Scotland and Hong Kong.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Technology is clearly changing how we construct, enabling projects to be built much more efficiently and effectively than ever before. But just as it’s changing the industry, it must also change the makeup of the workforce that employs this technology on a day-to-day basis.

It’s clear that the emerging workforce has the right skill set to take on the new technology roles now inherent to the industry, but more work remains to be done to ensure these roles are given the right technology skills to succeed starting on day one. Various players in the industry and academia have made major inroads to-date. The passage of The American Jobs Plan by the Biden administration could help further the cause by highlighting the major projects and technological advances that will likely result from it.

Mark Schwartz is Chief Digital Officer at Trimble, responsible for transforming the company’s systems, processes, and infrastructure. Learn more at trimble.com.

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