Silicon Valley Is the Answer to Attracting the Next Generation in Construction

by Sarah Hodges
- Nov 20 2017 - 6 min read
A young worker using a tablet device on a construction jobsite
Solving the construction industry's shortage of skilled laborers and engineers will require a concerted effort to change how young people view the field.

The construction industry’s skilled-labor and engineering shortage has been escalating from a perfect storm—a confluence of those who left the field and didn’t come back, those about to retire in droves, and those uninterested in joining the ranks.

The root of the labor shortage goes back to the Great Recession of the late 2000s, when nearly two million people exited the construction industry. Many companies used that as a chance to retool, but the harsh reality is that many workers didn’t return. Coupled with the imminent retirement of 20 percent of an aging construction industry workforce over the next 10 years, the industry is facing a major gap.

And the forecast doesn’t look good when it comes to pairing up the next generation with the construction industry. A recent industry survey found that 70 percent of firms had trouble filling positions, and 75 percent felt the situation would only get worse next year.

It’s not all bad news, though: Students and young workers are not replacing the previous generation at a high rate because of their perceptions of construction work, but those perceptions can be influenced. When students—who are graduating with an appetite to work for Silicon Valley startups—close their eyes, they think about construction as a hard-working, hands-on industry, which it absolutely is. But it can also be tech focused, engaging, and exciting.

A construction worker using a tablet to review job site plans.
To lure young workers to construction, the industry must make cutting-edge technology a key component.

Lure of Social Impact and Gaming Technology

The construction industry still trails behind others in its investment in technology, but that’s changing. Construction technology is already making a huge impact on improving quality, reducing risk, shortening schedules, and improving margins.

With a tech-savvy, technology-first approach, the industry can close the shortage/demand gap of skilled workers and engineers. By building a reputation of being as innovative as Silicon Valley, the industry will do a better job of attracting new people. And by showing how advancing technology is at the forefront of solving problems, it will offer the promise of exciting, impactful, and innovative work.

The construction industry needs to show the next generation the impact it can have on something seen, lived-in, and inhabited by real people. There is a huge opportunity to make a social impact, whether that’s helping people recover from natural disasters or solving the pressing need for buildings and infrastructure to meet the growing world population.

With a tech-savvy, technology-first approach, the industry can close the shortage/demand gap of skilled workers and engineers.

It’s also about bringing the sexy back to construction, which means bringing cutting-edge technology to the forefront. Aspiring designers and engineers working in animation, virtual reality, and augmented reality—those who can model and animate in 3D—can apply their skills in new, exciting, and fast-developing ways on the construction site of the future.

Calling All Programmers and Augmented Workers

There so much happening with software and technology on job sites right now, both automating and supplementing what workers are doing on-site. Imagine the impact of a safety or quality manager, who, due to augmented reality, digital technology, and mobile devices, now has the equivalent of a second, third, or fourth pair of eyes. Technology can also reduce waste in construction projects by predicting outcomes during different phases of the project.

General contractors are now using platforms such as Forge to create rich data ecosystems on worksites, linking computer models, on-site workers, project management, and back-end record-keeping. For example, J.E. Dunn, a large construction-engineering company, connects Forge with its enterprise resource program system. There’s plenty of room in the industry for custom programs (and programmers), and companies will develop new systems and software in order to be more competitive.

Meanwhile, technology is fueling the industrialization of construction. Job sites may soon become high-tech, open-air factories: Prefabrication, modular housing, and 3D printing are revolutionizing the industry and creating more efficient, computer-aided building methods. Not only does this impact the built environment, but because workers are finding more optimal ways to finish buildings, they’re helping the bottom line and potentially solving the affordability crisis.

A construction worker and bulldozer on a job site.
Construction firms need to do more outreach to students and prospective workers, especially ones focusing on animation, computer science, and video game development.

Connecting With the Future Workforce

The innovative use of technology in the industry is a compelling story, but construction firms need to do more outreach to students and prospective workers. Creating and expanding intern programs that not only bring construction-management students to the work sites but seek out students studying animation, computer science, and video-game development is a great start. Thanks to these programs, not only can students change their perceptions of technology in the industry, but by sharing what they’ve learned at school, they help bring more technology into the construction trailer.

I’ve seen interns—experimenting with HoloLens mixed-reality goggles—connect to BIM models and show contractors how to examine the models for coordination and clash detection in real time.

Construction companies should also focus more on matchmaking. Students  learning construction management go through capstone programs during their junior and senior years. General contractors and commercial developers should link up with universities and use these programs to create joint programs that allow these students to apply and pilot new construction technology. It’s a great way for students to get hands-on experience and for the industry to tap into a pool of talent it can nurture and potentially hire as the students graduate and move into the real world.

The construction industry can start building the pipeline even earlier with increased investment in STEM education. Connecting younger students with the construction industry and showing them the technology they can use on the job site and the role they can play in the built environment is an important message. A large number of building associations, including the Association of Builders and Contractors and the Association of General Contractors, should continue to reach out via their student chapters. It’s a great way for them to start building mentorships that connect students with professionals.

A surveyor works on a construction job site
The male-dominated construction industry needs to make concerted efforts to diversify the workforce in order to address its challenges in the coming decades.

Growth and Evolution Through Diversity

This industry is ripe for technology disruption. But it’s also ripe for disruption in terms of diversity, another way to appeal to younger workers and expand the pool of potential employees. There’s a lot the industry can do to break the stereotype of being very male-dominated, such as partnering with industry associations and media outlets and creating platforms for discussions that challenge the status quo.

The industry needs to reach into the education sector, inspire both boys and girls, and be open and proud of diversity. Skanska, a global construction and engineering firm, makes a huge commitment to women in construction. It’s one of the company’s cultural pillars, and it gets its female leaders out front and center at every possible opportunity.

The construction industry can support and empower both technological evolution and diversity. This time of rapid change is an opportunity to transform the industry and the makeup of the workforce for the better. This is an industry built on collaboration. Hearing different approaches to problem-solving, focusing on technological advancements, and encouraging more people to participate can only help construction thrive.

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