Modularity: The Bigger Picture

Modular construction is known for saving time and money but has bigger picture potential to impact the future of the construction workforce.

Despite so many aspects of the economy and daily lives stalling during the pandemic, modular construction took off. The need to rapidly add or adjust space paved the way for modular solutions which helped meet urgent needs for affordable housing, healthcare facilities and data center capacity, among other things, quickly.

Modular construction, of course, means many of a building’s parts are prefabricated off-site for assembly onsite. This approach got a bad rap for a time, with the expectation that prefab and modular translates to boring and cookie cutter. That may have once been the case, but today’s modular builds offer flexibility in design and aesthetic elements to yield the quality and style that builders and clients seek. Add to flexibility and rapid delivery tremendous cost savings and it’s really no wonder modular construction is taking off.

But wait…there’s more!

What people rarely consider with respect to modular construction is its potential for making construction more appealing to more people. Drawing people into the construction workforce is more critical than ever.

According to the most recently U.S. Chamber of Commerce quarterly construction index, 62% of contractors are struggling to find skilled workers. Two-thirds say they’re struggling to meet deadlines due to workforce and supply chain struggles. The lack of adequate staffing in construction opens a host of issues and leads to lost opportunity.

While we’re looking at data, let’s look at who makes up the existing construction industry workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 10,692,000 total workers in construction, a little less than 14% are female and that a large majority hold sales, finance, and administrative jobs. Obviously, women represent a massive untapped talent pool and a huge opportunity to fill the void in construction.

Modular design holds a lot of potential when it comes to building a more diverse pool of talented workers by creating opportunities for men and women, of all sizes, ethnicities, and cultures, to participate in the construction workforce. 

How modular construction impacts workforce development

The “industrial evolution” in construction hinges on the concept of offsite manufacturing. Prefabricating building components in a controlled, off-site environment establishes an attractive work environment characterized by regular hours, climate control, predictable commutes, better training, and consistent supervision. That level of predictability makes the prospect of work in construction infinitely more appealing.

On the jobsite, modular pieces make on-site assembly quicker. Fewer moving parts creates a more controlled and safer environment at the project site while reducing “brute strength” barriers to female participation.

Getting it right on site

While modular construction inherently brings about a host of benefits that make careers in construction more enticing to more people, the industry needs to provide for more than physical safety. A safe jobsite must also be hospitable, not hostile. Getting this right is key to tapping into that huge percentage of the workforce that don’t currently seek out careers in construction.

To start, good planning, integrated, and empowered teams are a must to make projects efficient and mitigate risks. Empowerment and engagement of team leads (foremen, superintendents), to collaborate and callout opportunities for improvement and maintain a productive, protected, and healthy work environment is also key.

Beyond eliminating bad behavior, invest in a shift toward good behaviors. To make a jobsite more conducive to more people:

  • Make it a condition of employment that people call out bad or hostile behavior when they see it.
  • Make sure jobsite signage and safety posters reflect diversity.
  • Amplify the voice of women and other underrepresented people in meetings.
  • Incentivize subcontractors and supply chains for diversity.
  • Make it possible of people to anonymously provide recommendations or elevate issues.
  • Make sure there are locker rooms, lavatories, and PPE equipment for women.

Embrace the benefits of modular construction

Increased offsite manufacturing reduces the requirement for sheer brute strength to do the job on site and opens the door to diversity in construction. Let’s seize this shift and make the changes on site to support growth in the construction industry. A larger pool of talent paves the way for development of desperately needed specialized trades. Greater diversity and inclusion hold a lot of potential to strengthen the construction industry and make it possible to capitalize on today’s high demand.

Nancy Novak

Chief Innovation Officer, Compass Datacenters