How does the architecture, engineering and construction industry make vocational work attractive again and avert what some call a “crisis level” construction workers shortage?
For many construction workers, both in the UK and around the world, the pride and prestige once associated with the industry is an increasingly distant mid-20th century memory.
Instead, as a global society, many associate blue-collar work with “menial labour” – vocational jobs left to an economic subset unable to afford or attend college or a university.
The consequence of this societal shift has left the modern construction industry in a lurch: breakneck demand for the type of infrastructure a 21st century economy requires and a smaller and smaller applicant pool to get the work done.
In fact, just to keep pace with demand, the US construction industry will need to hire an additional 650,000 workers this year alone. Here at home, there are 244,000 fewer workers in the construction sector versus three years ago, according to the Office for National Statistics.
How can we fix the construction workers shortage?
The good news is that if there’s one thing construction workers do well, it’s fix things. This means the industry’s greatest challenge could be its most important catalyst.
The first step is what many refer to as “unclogging the talent pipeline”. Brookings, the American research group, defines the talent pipeline as the intersection of government, education and business. Reversing the construction workers shortage will require realignment in how the public and private sectors work together. Hard and soft skills alike must be taught earlier in employees’ careers and ideally when they are still earning their degrees.
Likewise, employers need to better inform what that curriculum should look like, partnering with academia, and government. Above all, continued/renewed investment in STEM education, along with university-level mentorship programmes, on-site jobs training and the promotion/fast-tracking of construction management positions via apprenticeship programmes.
Along with an unclogged talent pipeline, construction firms must better fund and organise new training initiatives and worker development programmes. This could include the hiring of third parties to deliver expert knowledge and the encouraged enrolment in continuing education courses.
The rise of the ‘construction technologist’
Perhaps most important, is the rise of what many call the “construction technologist”. SaaS construction management company Procore Technologies defines the construction technologist as “a construction company’s technology insider; a sort of family tech guru who is intimately acquainted with an outfit’s construction processes. The CT is able to clearly see, in the landscape of options, the best technology fit for the company — considering price point and plausible ROI”.
The development of this type of role is critical not only in today’s tech-enabled construction firms but also as a key marketing tool. The construction technologist isn’t the proverbial hardhat. He or she is a software-centric problem solver, capable of managing and integrating a variety of construction technologies — including BIM, virtual design and construction, drones, VR/AR and AI.
According to Kathy Wells, editor of trade publication Construction Business Owner magazine, the role and responsibilities of this still-evolving position remain in flux but could include:
- Monitoring and understanding the company’s technology budget.
- Asking the right questions of company stakeholders to properly assess business needs and technology pain points.
- Interfacing with teams to identify the technology needs of field crews versus office teams.
- Identifying opportunities for automation.
- Serving as key stakeholder and conductor of research and proposals, experimenting with new technologies.
To be sure, one new position won’t solve the construction labour shortage overnight. But it is, nevertheless, a compelling symbol for what the modern construction industry must become in order to attract younger, newer talent.
Vocational pendulum is beginning to swing back
Encouragingly, despite the current construction workers shortage (which could cost the UK economy £30bn per year) there are indications that the vocational pendulum is beginning to swing back.
Last year, in its Skills for Jobs White Paper, the UK government outlined needed reforms to post-16 technical education.
According to the document the top three initiatives include:
- Business groups, including chambers of commerce, working alongside colleges to develop tailored skills plans to meet local training needs.
- Giving employers a central role in designing almost all technical courses by 2030.
- Boosting the quality and uptake of Higher Technical Qualifications that provide the skills many employers say they need and can lead to higher wages.
While proposals such as this are likewise a far cry from actual implementation, it’s clear that with billions of pounds at stake and the contraction of the UK economy possible, no prime minister, from any party, is willing to further ignore the problem or delay addressing its solution.
Thus, only by working in this multidisciplinary manner will the pride and prestige of the UK — and the world’s — industrial workforce be restored.
*Please note: This is a commercial profile