Mind the gaps: skills development in the construction industry
It is difficult to read anything about the UK economy and employment, over the last several years, and not see references to ‘skills gaps’. Broadly speaking, a ‘skills gap’ exists where the skills that employers require are not available within the working population.
The reason that governments and industries may be concerned about skills gaps is that, in the long term, continued skills gaps have the potential to reduce the competitiveness of the industry and this will impact on the economy. Where skills may exist elsewhere, those regions may increase their economic viability at the expense of the region with the skills gaps.
In a global economy, a shift in competitive advantage, particularly in industries that play a large role in national economies, can have a large impact.
Construction drives the economy
The construction industry is a global economic engine. When a nation’s construction industry thrives, that nation’s economy will tend to have a solid basis on which other industries can also benefit. The reason for this is that the scope of the construction industry is not comprised of only those companies that build things.
It is also all of the companies that supply construction companies. Those companies range from those that manufacture construction materials (bricks, timber, glass, steel, etc.) to those that manufacture construction machinery (cranes, bulldozers, forklifts, etc.). But it isn’t just the ‘big’ stuff.
Think about how many companies are involved in the small things that we see on a construction site - the signs that are posted around the site, the hard hats and high-visibility tunics worn by the workers, safety boots, portable toilets, the transport systems required to bring people and materials to a construction site, and so on. Now, that is only related to the construction process.
We must also consider the people and materials involved in maintaining the things that are built. You see, construction is an industry that directly involves a large number of people and companies, but also indirectly involves a vast network of other companies and people. When the construction industry slows down, it has a ‘ripple effect’ that will impact across an entire economy.
The challenge of innovation
There has been a great deal of talk, in recent years, about the need for the construction industry to change. No one disputes that there is a need for greater efficiency (making more of using less) and sustainability (producing less CO2).
The challenge is that to achieve these goals, we need to change the way we do things. This will mean we need to make greater use of technology throughout the construction process. Automation and robotics have already started to point to some of the ways that this can achieve greater results.
Using GPS systems, large machinery for excavation can carry out the process of digging foundations, levelling sites or roadways, and many other tasks, with less human involvement and higher levels of accuracy and efficiency.
For example, assume you need to excavate a large area for the lower levels of a building. To do this with a human-operated digger would mean that you are limited to the hours in which a person can work effectively during the day, because operating such large machinery at night would require tremendous additional electricity to provide enough light to make it safe to operate the equipment and see what you are doing.
However, an automated digger that uses satellite positioning (rather than eyes), to ‘see’ what it is doing, doesn’t care whether it is day or night. It won’t need to stop for a break. It won’t make a mistake by getting distracted by something it sees or hears.
It will keep going until it has reached the required depth and (research shows) it will do it more accurately and in less time. Less time for a large fossil-fuel powered machine to operate means less emissions and less impact on the environment.
The integration of technology, like that presented above, requires a new type of people working in the industry. These will be people who understand technology and the application of technology, throughout the process.
The use of digital tools and systems will become as fundamental to construction as a shovel or a hammer. Surveyors, architects, contractors, engineers, site operatives will all need to understand how technology informs the work that they do and how information is the key to successful projects.
A career of choice not of default
The other change that needs to take place is our perception of working in the construction industry. Many see jobs in the construction industry as something that you ‘end up’ doing, rather than choosing.
While for some, working in construction is a ‘fall-back’ because they haven’t found success elsewhere, more and more people are choosing to work in the industry. It is also worth recognising that many of the new roles which will enable a new type of construction industry are not those that require steel-toed boots and a hard-hat.
The new roles are highly technical, digitally-driven, information-related and probably require more time in an office than on a building site.
The construction industry is vast. There will always be jobs on building sites which require knowledge and skill in specific trades (electrical, concrete formwork, carpentry, etc.) and these are vitally important roles. There are also new roles that will be equally important and relate to the way that we generate, manage and use information to enable both manual and automated construction.
These new roles will require a new kind of education, which recognises the interrelated nature of different disciplines and the information that is required to make these work together effectively and efficiently.
So, there are some very big ‘skills gaps’ in the construction industry. But, remember: where there is a gap, there is an opportunity to fill that gap with something new.