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Bridging Construction’s Talent Gap with Learning Workers

BY JANICE CLUSSERATH, HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR,
MCKINSTRY, A MEMBER OF MULTIPLE AGC CHAPTERS

The construction industry faces a growing workforce shortage and talent gap that could impact productivity and workflow by 2020. Construction is now commonly cited as one of the hardest industries to recruit and retain talent, especially when it comes to finding skilled laborers and project leaders.


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The way the construction industry has been taught to work and the way we’ve trained our workers are perfectly suited for a future world that no longer exists. Construction must shift from traditional knowledge workers to a new generation of learning workers. Knowledge workers are given specific information and skillsets and are expected to apply, grow and refine that knowledge over the course of their career. In contrast, learning workers are taught how to continually learn and apply new skills, adapting to changing work requirements as they arise.

The shift from knowledge workers to learning workers is already underway. We will always need skilled workers and laborers to construct our buildings, but their skillsets will change over time. Three key milestones will accelerate the transition:

•   By 2025, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will emerge as standard on-the-job training tools, providing a platform for workers to gain new knowledge and skills at the jobsite.

•   By 2030, highly skilled veteran workers will move from the field to central, remote operations. These veteran workers will train and lead new, generalist workers virtually through AR/VR and other technology platforms.

•   By 2035, the transition to learning workers will be complete. Instead of having developed skillsets, workers will learn skills as they go, adapting and applying their learning to new situations and issues as they arise.

THE RISE OF AR/VR

AR/VR delivers an ideal platform for field-based workforce training and collaboration. It’s clear to see why AR/VR vendors are targeting built environment applications and why construction companies are clamoring to evaluate and adopt the latest AR/VR technologies.

Dozens of pilot projects are in place to create completely immersive construction sites where veteran workers can walk side-by-side with their less-trained counterparts in a virtual version of the building. Specific tasks, equipment and skills can be outlined in an interactive, 360-degree virtual world, allowing trainers to map out each project phase. Specifications, schematics and even training videos can be overlaid to provide a training experience unlike no other.

Several vendors are taking these concepts even further, merging AR displays within hard hats and safety glasses to create enhanced, heads-up displays. The technology can flag safety issues, unfinished work and more. The technology can even lay out a virtual project template that workers can follow as they go, streamlining workflow dramatically.

The next generation of construction workers needs to master the art of learning quickly, adapting that practice in an ever-changing work environment.

AR/VR offers solutions to help combat construction’s workforce and talent gap. Adoption is still in its infancy but will quicken as technology vendors improve their offerings. By 2025, AR/VR will be ubiquitous within the industry, becoming a standard on-the-job training tool. It will also provide a platform to centralize well-trained workers for remote training and operations.

CENTRALIZING THE WELL-TRAINED WORKFORCE

Construction is currently based on multiple highly specialized and well-trained trades. Unfortunately, many of those tradespeople are retiring without an adequate workforce in place to accept the passing baton. What happens when there are not enough of these veteran workers to go around?

Training programs cannot realistically transfer a lifetime of on-the-job, specialized training to new workers entering the field. And there simply are not enough mid-career veterans to fill the growing need. The value of highly specialized and well-trained tradespeople is about to rise dramatically — so much so that construction companies will be forced to create new models to retain those workers longer and get as much knowledge and experience out of them as possible.

The construction industry must embrace “in the moment” training. Veteran, well-trained workers will move from field work to a central remote operations and training role (prolonging their ability to stay on the job). These veteran workers will connect with junior, generalist workers in the field, walking them through specialized steps and processed via AR/VR and other technology platforms.

In a recent project, a senior engineer leveraged AR technology to commission a wireless network in a newly built structure while training a junior engineer new to the industry. The senior engineer that designed the system was based in Seattle, while the building and junior engineers were both located in Denver. Schedules and budgets didn’t allow for extensive travel back and forth. AR offered a workaround. The junior engineer donned a pair of AR glasses on the physical jobsite. Sitting in his office in Seattle, the senior engineer was able to see exactly what the junior engineer saw, walking him through the building and calling out what equipment to look for, what tests to run and what changes to make. The project was completed flawlessly, on time and on budget, thanks to the flexibility provided by emerging AR technologies. What’s more, the entire session was recorded, offering a training file for the junior engineer to study and leverage in future work.

This is the first step in creating a more centralized workforce. By 2030, highly skilled workers will move from the field to central, remote operations to train and lead generalist workers virtually.

AN INDUSTRY OF LEARNING WORKERS

Technology is advancing rapidly. The rate of change is so quick that the ability to gain new knowledge will soon be more valuable than the knowledge itself. The next generation of construction workers needs to master the art of learning quickly, adapting that practice in an ever-changing work environment. New technologies and innovations are being introduced on — what seems like — a weekly basis. Modern construction sites are deploying drones, automated bricklayers, 3D printers, RFID sensors and a host of mobile and IoT devices. The industry needs to partner with universities, community colleges, unions and other training and apprenticeship programs to rethink current linear curricula to ensure the workforce can
keep pace.

Janice Clusserath is director of human resources for McKinstry, a national leader in designing, constructing, operating and maintaining high-performing buildings. From new construction and ongoing operations to adaptive reuse and energy retrofits, the company provides a single point of accountability across the entire building lifecycle. Learn more at
www.McKinstry.com.