Getting wired: Contractors find value in on-the-job tech

When he talks about contractors and technology, IT specialist James M. Benham likes to quote a client, who once told him, “I got into construction decades ago because you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist, only to find out that now, you have to be a rocket scientist to be in construction.”

The CEO of JBKnowledge, a construction industry technology firm, Benham, writing in the introduction to a new report his company produced with Texas A&M University, concedes that many long-time contractors, who “started in this industry because it was two guys and a hammer and you were ready to get dirty,” remain skeptical of using technology to construct office buildings, lay pavement, design schools or build houses. Younger contractors, he notes, have “more social media profiles in their tool box than actual tools.”

The industry, he says, needs both kinds of construction professionals. And increasingly, even the old-timers are relying on technology.

Slow change

Today’s contractors, says software executive Cecilia Padilla, are struggling with using “yesterday’s tools” for estimating, takeoff, bidding and managing projects. That struggle with paper, says Padilla, CEO of On Center Software, is encouraging more of them to embrace the use of technology on the job—and it’s been a long time coming.

The Texas A&M study confirms that the construction industry lags behind many others when it comes to using mobile apps, cloud-based systems and other technology. At the same time, more contractors are recognizing the potential cost savings that technology can offer—by omitting duplication of effort, minimizing errors and allowing quicker communication between the field and the back office.

“The money made during estimating and takeoff can easily be lost in the field due to errors that occur when multiple sets of plans are maintained on various types of media,” says Padilla, whose firm conducted a similar study of construction executives, estimators and project managers in March. “It would appear that the industry is banking on the inherent error reduction through… technologies to solve these problems."

On the go

A majority of contractors use basic technology like smartphones, laptops and tablets, on the job, the Texas A&M survey shows. The numbers did not change much between 2013 and 2014, when the survey, released earlier this month, was conducted last year: 72% of construction professionals use smartphones at work; 53.9% use laptops; and 50.1% use tablets.

The On Center survey found that 80% of respondents use mobile devices for bidding or managing projects.

And mobile apps have become fairly popular among contractors: The Texas A&M poll showed 51.4% use them for field data collection, up from just over 30% the year before; and between 23% and 46% of contractors use mobile apps for project management, invitations to bid, building information modeling (BIM), accounting, customer relationship management (CRM) or estimating.

Staying safe

While 49% of the executives, estimators and project managers in the Texas A&M survey say they use their personal laptops, smartphones or tablets at work, just 32.7% of the companies that employ them secure those devices before they can use them on the job—even though they access corporate data.

The authors’ finding: “Companies are increasingly negligent in not knowing and securing the employees and devices that touch their corporate data.”

The report was equally critical of the lack of security around corporate clouds: 63% percent of the construction professionals in the survey admitted their companies do not have cloud security policies, the report said.

“Companies are out of touch with cloud maintenance and threats,” the authors wrote.

They pointed to a lack of understanding about the importance of securing company secrets, citing more than a quarter of survey respondents who said they do not store any data in the cloud but later said they use smartphones, tablets or Dropbox at work—which means they do use the cloud.

And while the poll found that some employers train employees about data security, “beyond that, it seems most of the companies… are leaving themselves exposed to cloud security threats and relying on an unofficial honor system among employees… to ensure data security.”

What’s stopping you?

The problem is likely to expand. In the On Center survey, 31% of corporate construction staff said they plan to move takeoff, estimating and project management to the cloud within two years.

Still, old-school contractors aren’t the only obstacle to the adoption of technology in the industry. More than half of the execs in the Texas A&M survey admitted that they don’t have the budget for new technology. Others cite a lack of support staff, the maturity of the technology, the steep learning curve, and a hesitation by managers or employees to try it.

The study’s authors say the results prove that more builders are trusting technology as they realize the benefits of being able to carrying digital spreadsheets to the job site. They predict more construction pros will soon by relying on drones and even wearable technology that senses motion or takes photos that can sync with a smartphone.

Contractors, they say, “are more receptive to IT solutions than ever before, even if their companies are not budgeting for them yet.”

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