Technology and the Labor Shortage: Automation Can Empower Workers

If construction’s power players choose to proceed responsibly, automation and technology in construction will aid the labor shortage by streamlining processes and empowering workers.
By Yves Frinault
July 24, 2018

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released data showing that spending in the private construction market has reached $954 billion, surpassing the previous peak spending of $906 billion in 2006.

While spending is on the rise, so is the number of unfilled positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 243,000 construction job openings in May 2018—a nearly 33 percent increase from the 183,000 jobs open just a year before.

With three million of the current 15 million construction workers planning on retiring or leaving the industry within the next decade, the issue won’t be resolved on its own.

The labor shortage is one of the most widely reported topics in the industry, as is the fear that automation will replace construction workers. But how do the two work together? Could automation ease the chokehold the labor shortage has on the construction industry? Or does it threaten the remaining field jobs?

If construction’s power players choose to proceed responsibly, automation and technology in construction will aid the labor shortage by streamlining processes and empowering workers.

Targeting Field Workers

Architects and design firms have made the transition to complete digitalization in recent decades, and project managers now have a powerful suite of software products tailored for bidding, planning and accounting. It is time for construction companies to finally realize that field workers—due to the mobile and cloud revolutions—are now worth endowing with technology to pull this part of the workforce forward.

Foremen and crews on construction sites are still using paper, email, phone calls and physically tracking down workers to exchange and access information. These redundant tasks add little progress to the actual work that needs to be completed, resulting in missed deadlines and overspent budgets.

In fact, a National Institute of Standards and Technology study reports the construction industry wastes $15.8 billion each year due to a lack of efficient information management systems.

But what happens when technology is targeted toward these blue-collar jobs? Smartphones—the miracles of technology that sit in every construction worker’s pocket—will be put to good use to collaborate and drive productivity gains like those seen among architects, designers and most other office-based professions.

Productivity: Idle Time Vs. Wrench Time

Only 30 percent of a craft professional’s day is currently spent on building, or “wrench time.” Task preparation—gathering equipment and materials and moving from one area to another—consumes 40 percent of the day. Another 30 percent is spent idling, which happens when workers can’t efficiently get the right people, with the right information, materials and equipment, in the right spot at the right time.

Needless to say, the current breakdown is inefficient and doesn’t maximize the value generated. It’s especially troubling considering the labor shortage.
That’s why technology aimed at increasing productivity is so vital to the overall health of the construction industry. Technology focused on things such as task management, training and safety streamlines these processes to give more focus on wrench time. Instead of wasting time making sure everyone is on the same page, craft professionals have the ability to concentrate on the actual work that needs to be done in the field.

More wrench time means increased productivity and, as a result, more projects finished on deadline and within the designated budget.

Tech Empowerment

While robots can be easily trained and managed, they lack one crucial quality: adaptability. Human workers can adapt to different situations and make decisions based on their critical thinking skills. This adaptability is crucial for those working on construction sites, which feature constantly moving pieces, varying circumstances and revised directions. Removing this ability from the field simply does not make sense from a business perspective.

However, technology that gives workers more wrench time maximizes their productivity and output. It also empowers them to enhance their skill set within the field instead of continually wasting their time performing redundant tasks—increasing value for construction companies while reducing costs. All of this helps bridge the labor shortage, at least for the short term.

Several reports consider the possibility of robots overtaking construction jobs in the future. With technology such as self-driving construction equipment gaining in popularity, some projections indicate this happening as soon as 2020. The reality is that a future with increased technology usage in construction is coming, but there really is no telling when and how far the automation will reach. For example, look at the attempts by prefabrication to conquer the construction market throughout the past 40 years; it still has yet to do so.

Blue-collar jobs are essential to the middle class and the economy. Construction specifically presents opportunities for workers to step into well-paying jobs where they have the potential to grow long term. Instead of technology replacing these jobs, it can be targeted toward the end users: the workers in the field. Doing this will improve productivity and preserve good jobs important to the economy.

Technology that focuses on streamlining processes, improving training and protecting employees has the power to launch the construction industry into the future without leaving its valuable workers in the past.

by Yves Frinault
Yves Frinault has masters degrees in civil engineering from Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique.

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