Digital technology can address many of the challenges the construction industry faces, but with the sector widely reported as one of the least digitised, reskilling now is important to ensure the industry is ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution

Lucien Wynn BW 2018

Despite widespread industry perception and claims such as those made in McKinsey’s report – Imagining Construction’s Digital Future – that the construction sector is the least digitalised industry, there is cause for optimism.

Innovative and transformative technological developments like 3D-printed houses, automated construction equipment and prefabricated skyscrapers have emerged, increasing the potential to uplift 10 years of stagnated productivity.

To embrace the use of these new technologies at scale, across complex supply chains, requires people at the core; driving, managing and implementing a new digital way of working. Artificial intelligence will replace certain tasks, particularly those requiring linear and sequential processing or problem solving – but where AI can’t compete is in humans’ ability to innovate, manage and lead. This requires emotion and instinct that robots can’t replicate.

’Construction needs to reskill more than 600,000 construction people over the next two decades, according to various reports, from trades vulnerable to technological change to new roles created by technology’

Our workforce will look quite different in a couple of decades, construction included. This digital shift requires new ways of thinking and working. It means creating a new workforce for the future, now. But with construction in the grips of one of the worse skills shortages ever – compounded by the uncertain future of EU skills in Britain post-Brexit – the sector’s biggest obstacle to digitalisation is knowing whether enough talent will be available to drive change.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) recently reported the need for 157,000 new construction recruits by 2021, with an estimated 50% of EU labour set to return to Eastern Europe. With the government committing to an additional three million apprenticeships across all industries in England by 2020, the hope is a younger emerging workforce of Generation Zs and Millennials will help plug the skills gaps. These are generations brought up on technology, they live and breathe it. Their attitude to technology and the workplace will drive the digital revolution, almost certainly for the better. But it won’t be until 2025 that 70% of the UK workforce will consist of Gen Zs and millennials so, to build a workforce now that’s ready for the future requires reskilling existing employees.

Construction needs to reskill more than 600,000 construction people over the next two decades, according to various reports, from trades vulnerable to technological change to new roles created by technology. But it’s knowing where in the business to reskill and with what competencies.

The effect of technology

Research by Mace (2017, Moving to industry 4.0: A skills revolution) examined every stage of the property/asset life cycle and how this will be affected by Industry 4.0, and found that the ‘assemble/build’ life cycle stage would be most affected, followed by ‘operate,’ ‘design’ ‘procure’ and ‘project brief’. Designers and architects will be most affected by augmented or virtual reality, advanced offsite manufacturing and robotics will affect builders, and advanced energy creation and storage and the Internet of Things will have the most significance on facilities managers.

To reskill, consider current and likely future skills gaps, and how you will need to align this talent so they flourish in a future augmented by new technologies and in a way that drives business value. Digital advances such as 3D construction printing, technology focused service delivery models, automated trucks and equipment will require a completely new type of skilled personnel – maybe construction scientists or advanced material scientists.

Consider other skills and roles outside of ‘non-construction’ – according to Mace the industry will need to recruit 5,240 ‘non-construction’ professionals a year including technical, IT and other office-based staff.

Finally, start to make practical changes so learning becomes a way of life. Place more technology experience in boardrooms; continually retrain and reskill workers and use digital to learn digital.

Technology will always evolve, but with a strong learning culture and mindset in place, you can ensure your talent has the skills to adapt swiftly to the competitive advantages that digitalisation will bring to construction.