Is Construction’s Stagnant Productivity an Employer Branding Issue?

Fixing the construction industry’s stagnant productivity will require cutting-edge technology, but firms are struggling to attract workers with the skills to use it.

The construction industry’s negative productivity curve represents a very real threat not only to the industry itself, but to our national infrastructure as a whole. As it stands, every dollar spent on construction delivers less than it did a decade ago. Of course, the financial implications of this trend are troubling — after all, construction is expected to become $10.5 trillion industry by 2020. However, there are other things we should be concerned about, including our country’s rapidly deteriorating infrastructure.

In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers argues that innovation will play a pivotal role in making modern construction efficient and affordable enough to help rectify the myriad problems underlying the United States’ “D+” infrastructure. The report urges construction industry influencers to “support research and development into innovative new materials, technologies, and processes to modernize and extend the life of infrastructure, expedite repairs or replacement, and promote cost savings.”

There is little doubt that the future prosperity of the industry depends upon technologies like BIM, but realizing the potential embedded within these tools is easier said than done. Taking full advantage of burgeoning construction technology requires not only a firm commitment to the technology itself, but a workforce that is savvy enough to put the technology into action.

Dealing with an Aging Workforce

According to a survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), many AEC firms are struggling to hold onto highly skilled, young employees, which in turn is making it increasingly difficult for the industry to advance in terms of tech adoption and efficiency.

The survey found that 55% of firms report having a hard time finding qualified project managers, 43% report having a hard time finding qualified estimators, and 34% report having a hard time finding qualified engineers.

“There are not many young people entering the profession,” according to one survey respondent, “and there is an extreme lack of talented people in the 10+ years’ level of experience. We have no problem hiring college graduates, but keeping them after five years is difficult, and then we start over with a new hire.” If this trend continues, it will pose a significant threat to the stability of the entire construction industry, as, according to the AGC survey, 16.3% of AEC firms have already had to delay or completely turn down a project on account of their inability to secure qualified management talent.

How to Attract and Hold Onto Talent

As such, the future of the construction industry will be dictated in large part by whether firms are able to solve this talent attraction and retention problem.

Among other things, we must address how the construction industry is going to contend with an unprecedented level of labor market competition. As new technologies become increasingly prevalent across every AEC niche, the definition of “well-qualified” – especially with respect to higher-level, salaried positions – is experiencing a radical shift of its own.

The requisite skill-set of tomorrow’s high-level AEC professional is starting to look a lot more like that of a data scientist, IT expert, or software developer, which has meant many AEC firms are now competing for talent directly with Silicon Valley giants like as Google and Apple. You can probably guess how that’s been going overall.

So how can the construction industry improve its employer value proposition? In addition to appealing to what young workers are actually looking for in a job, firms hoping to become a legitimate alternative to Silicon Valley must make a concerted effort to redefine the construction industry’s image. In other words, not only does the industry need to embrace cutting-edge technologies — it must make them a central part of its brand.

FCWI research puts it well: “Technology – more than wages and salary, flexible work days, and other job satisfaction parameters – can be a trump card in gaining the attention of young people, cultivating their interest in construction field positions and counteracting preconceived views that construction work is strictly low-tech and physical.”

Put simply, we now have technology that’s capable of redirecting construction’s negative productivity curve — we just have to make it clear that we’re ready and willing to actually deploy it. Alison Watson, Managing Director at Class of Your Own, lays out the problem with tremendous clarity and frankness: “When STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – subjects are at the top of the education agenda, there is little focus on introducing young people to the built and natural environment. Yet construction is a continually evolving, technically diverse industry of which STEM is the foundation. Educators require more focused support than the industry is currently providing.”

The talent pool the construction industry needs already exists, and in the wake of the proliferation of STEM-based education initiatives, will only continue to grow. It’s on all of us (i.e., the current members of the AEC workforce) to be proactive about reshaping our image in order to capture the attention and imagination of the next generation. The future of our industry — and arguably, the ongoing stability of the global economy — depends on it.

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