Digital Builder Ep 52: How Can Today’s Leaders Secure the Future of Construction?

The construction sector is having a pivotal moment. The choices we make today will significantly shape the future of our industry and the entire built environment.

There are a lot of essential questions surrounding the path forward. Which technologies should we invest in? What steps will enable us to increase alignment across all project stakeholders? How can we recruit talent and pass on crucial construction knowledge to the new generation of workers?

This latest episode of the Digital Builder podcast highlights these issues and offers potential solutions. While our guests don't claim to have all the answers, it offers a starting point for leaders like you to have meaningful discussions and explore strategies for the future.

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On this podcast episode

While in Autodesk’s Boston office, we had a candid conversation with John Fish, Chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, and Jim Lynch, Senior Vice President & General Manager of Autodesk Construction Solutions, to gain insights into the current state of the construction sector. We also dive into the pressing issues and emerging trends shaping the construction landscape to shed light on the realities and potential directions of the industry.

The need for increased collaboration and alignment across all contributing members of a project

A key focus throughout the discussion revolved around the measures leaders should take to secure the future of construction. The answer, says John, is to improve alignment across multiple industry players.

"We have to move forward with realigning the built world. What that means is, how do we create and carry alignment of interest between the architect, the developer, and the contractor?"

He adds that we as an industry must think about how to integrate the built world into a seamless platform. For instance, there's potential to collaborate closely with the architectural community, allowing them to focus on the creative aspects while contractors take on the responsibility of producing construction documents.

Another path could be through investments, says John. That’s why they have Suffolk Capital, which invests in select projects to establish a shared interest with developers and ensure that “everybody’s looking out for each other’s back.”

And, of course, having meaningful dialogs can be a game-changer. Construction podcasts, for example, "make a huge difference because they bring people together in a very thoughtful way,” remarks John.

The bottom line: there are various paths and opportunities to come together. And when we get this right, we can tap into our potential and forge a stronger future.

Can data sharing become the most transformative form of collaboration across the industry?

Achieving collective growth as an industry becomes an uphill battle without mutual support and the willingness to learn from one another. And a vital aspect of this lies in how we share information.

"If you can't measure it, you can’t manage it. To me, data is the gold of construction going forward. That's why we have 29 data analysts in our organization, and they crunch data each and every day," says John.

He continues, "Now, we've been very retrospective in using our data, but I would say on a going-forward basis, we're being much more prospective. Data can be a panacea to the future of construction.”

Jim weighs in, adding that turning data into information is critical.

"What we need to do as technologists is make sure we're providing the tools that help you pull those deep insights that can enable you to predict issues on future projects before you're out on the job site."

That's why both he and John are largely in favor of teams working together and sharing information.

Jim recalls conversations with other construction professionals who aren't keen to share their data. "When we talk about our machine learning capabilities, they're like, 'I don't want you training your algorithms with my information.’"

Jim continues, "Even if you explain that we're anonymizing the data so you and others can benefit… there's a lot of companies that will stand back and standoff on that."

"But there's a huge opportunity for the industry to come together. And when it does, I'm optimistic and confident we will leapfrog from where we are today."

How AI is unlocking new opportunities for workers and companies to innovate and refine their focus

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic across all industries, and construction is no exception. Not surprisingly, there are numerous ways AI can transform how we work.

According to John, he sees AI making a massive impact on design. "NASA does not design their rockets with BIM; they use artificial intelligence. Why do we use BIM or VDC repeatedly to design the same type of details? The advent of artificial intelligence will cause that dynamic to change radically."

John also sees a use case of AI in scheduling. "When we walk on our job sites today, we think we know exactly how to approach the sequencing of that particular job. What if I were to tell you that we're doing it wrong? Consider the idea of up-down construction, which they thought would never happen. But now we've done it many times around the country. Now is an opportunity for all of us as a category to open our aperture and see what else is possible."

Jim shares John's fascination with AI and says there's significant potential with the technology, especially in the construction industry, where we have a vast amount of data.

"There is so much data and so much to learn from, and that is what artificial intelligence feeds off of. That's how it delivers value."
Jim adds, "10 years from now—maybe less—will we still need design teams to draw doors, walls, and windows? Or do we apply artificial intelligence to capture the requirements? That way, the design and construction teams are integrated further along, so they're tweaking and quickly generating those construction drawings. There's so much out there for us to apply artificial intelligence to."

As far as the impact of AI on the labor market, Jim recommends we move away from the mindset that artificial intelligence and other technologies will eliminate jobs.

"I think it's the same thing with robotics. People say robotics in construction is taking away jobs from other workers. It's not; we have a shortage," Jim points out.

"Robotics can actually assist on the job site. Those things aren't taking away jobs. They're saving workers' backs."

How leaders should invest in upskilling blue-collar talent in unfamiliar technology and why it's possible

Our conversation also touched on recruiting blue-collar talent and ensuring construction professionals have the knowledge and skills to drive the industry forward.

According to John, an important step to bringing in the right talent is reestablishing our industry’s focus on vocational schools. "We got rid of those back in the nineties and two thousands, and to me, it was one of the biggest mistakes America made," he remarks.

John says that attracting women to the industry is also vital. "I think women in construction are single-handedly the biggest asset on a going-forward basis. We are fortunate to have 28% women in our company. And we will be going from 28 to 38% over the next ten years."

Beyond getting more people to join the industry, it's equally important to provide learning and upskilling opportunities to everyone in the construction workforce.

As John explains, "We have to re-engineer the workforce with the idea of what I call 'upskill training.' How do we get the younger generation to teach the old generation?"

John likens it to the idea of "reverse mentoring." It's encouraging the new generation of workers to educate older folks on new technologies—while removing any potential for embarrassment from the practice.

At the same time, seasoned construction pros who've been in the sector for years can transfer their knowledge and experience to newcomers.
"I call that an exchange of currency at the end of the day. That's a pretty good bet to take," adds John.

How organizations should engage the next generation in construction

At the tail end of our conversation, John and Jim share advice for leaders looking to engage the next generation of construction pros.
Jim, for his part, says that while investing in technology is necessary, companies must also devote ample resources to training employees and empowering them with a strong vision of what's possible.

"Firms like Suffolk are able to attract great talent because they paint the picture of what the future can be. And I think that's so important because that will motivate kids coming out of school to learn construction."

John is on the same page and emphasizes the need to double down on training. "There's no better ROI in training than in our construction category," he says. That's why it's vital to assess the workforce's needs and give them the tools and knowledge they need to thrive in their roles."

At Suffolk, for instance, John says they focus on upskilling their employees. "Not just providing them with skills. We take an assessment of where they are at this particular point in time in their career, agnostic of what their age is, and understand what their capabilities are and where they're short."

He continues, "And so if we can put together a program of upskilling in our organization across the entire platform and measure that, we're going to see a corresponding improvement in ROI in the organization."

New podcast episode every week 

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. If you're interested in learning more about the future of construction—and what you can do to shape it—catch the full episode of the podcast below.

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Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.