For many in the construction sector, the way the industry does its job has to change.
Construction makes up about $1 trillion worth of the U.S.' economy. But despite its high input, the industry's productivity levels have remained notoriously flat for years, and its struggle to find skilled workers is only expected to intensify as those entering the workforce abandon blue collar jobs for what they view as more opportune employment.
Resistance from some construction companies to integrate new technology is partly to blame, experts say, and financial inability to add tech to operations is another.
But technological advances are at the industry's doorstep — and a growing number of companies are eager to answer the call. As the industry faces a critical skilled-labor shortage, more firms are turning to technology to help them meet their jobsite and corporate needs as well as to maintain and even boost their bottom lines.
And if the industry wants to move past issues like poor communication, missed connections, insufficient management and other factors that are hampering productivity — more companies may want to start embracing technology.
Using technology as a recruiting tool
The use of technology in individuals' personal lives is one of the most power forces for its adoption in industrial uses.
"With the millennials and even the newest generation coming into the workforce, they've grown up with technology, they expect it," said Robert Kipp, a superintendent at Tishman Construction in New York City. "It's become so integral to our everyday lives and the way that we execute our own processes that it's expected we use technology."
While technology becomes an increasingly standard part of jobsite performance, some savvy companies are using it to recruit the next generation of construction workers.
"From a business operations standpoint, when you're competing for a small pool of labor, having things like tech training and career development can help incentivize workers to come join your firm," said Emily Tsitrian, head of consulting services at San Francisco-based PlanGrid, a construction productivity software company.
For many construction firms, Tsitrian said, a better-trained, more tech-savvy workforce can be a shrewd marketing tool for attracting younger, skilled workers who may not otherwise be interested in blue-collar jobs.
"I think technology is another emerging way to get people into this business," Garrett Harley, vice president of business development for Fieldwire, told Construction Dive last year. "Not many people coming out of school understand there's this much tech in construction. It's an exciting time to be a part of it."
Targeting talent early
For many, interest in construction comes too late.
A survey last year from the National Association of Home Builders found that, of 74% of adults aged 18 to 25 that knew their career aspirations, only 3% chose fields in the construction trades. In the undecided pool, 63% said there was little to no chance they would even consider construction, regardless of pay.
Greater investment in technical training could get more younger workers in the door — but starting even before students leave high school could be critical to shoring up the labor pipeline.
With 60% of employers saying that students should focus on their careers in high school, recruiters would do well to gear their efforts toward approaching schools and targeting potential future employees. Companies that offer internships and career opportunities with hands-on training early on can strengthen their brand awareness, support their talent pipelines and stay competitive in a marketplace fighting for limited resources. Some firms, like AECOM and Turner Construction, also offer employees tuition assistance or reimbursement programs for professional development coursework that can continue to sharpen workers' skills and ultimately entice them to stay with the company longer.
Though it may be easy for recruiters to get in the door, the construction industry still must face its perception problem.
"I think the education of the industry needs to be focused on the kids as well as the parents," said Jessie Davidson, educational content developer for construction management software company Procore, which includes affiliates that work with universities to educate future construction workers and to advocate for the skilled trades. "The tech aspect really helps — it's incredible to see these 14-year-olds work with technology and just get it. That aspect of construction is the future of the industry and it's just innate to them."
Davidson is working with Procore and ACE Mentor Program of America to bring to schools a new game, dubbed Brick By Brick, to help attract students to the industry. In its current state, the game is being used to teach grade school students various aspects of a construction project. The game is also being employed to onboard new Procore employees.
For Davidson, gamification is a valuable way to teach lessons and to appeal to the next generation of workers — and she's not alone. More employees are citing interest in gamifying their work while a majority of trainers (84%) note that the technique helps boost knowledge retention and performance, according to a Kahoot study.
Retaining a multi-generational workforce
Still, while younger workers may be more apt to experiment with technology, companies need to ensure that older workers aren't left behind.
"For us, we have to look at how the industry is evolving and how we can make older workers more efficient and effective," said Kathleen Barber, training director at San Mateo County Electrical Joint Apprenticeships & Training. "It's about upgrading their skills and keeping them viable as older workers when we recognize that they are bringing eons of experience to the table."
An important part of ensuring workers across generations feel appreciated means implementing the training needed to adapt to a changing industry.
One way to do so is by treating technology as another type of jobsite equipment, Tsitrian said. Even though traditional software training is typically done remotely via webinars, the hands-on nature of construction means a significant number of workers prefer training that mirrors the way they do their jobs.
"A lot of people like that satisfaction of creating a built thing," Tsitrian said. "The onsite aspect is very important for retention and making those workers confident that they can bring this new technology to the jobsite."
But tech training also has to start with the basics. For Tom Holsman, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of California, that means appreciation.
"Millennials are much more communicative and fluent in technology. Older generations supervising them have to realize that younger generations are hearing directions differently. You can't hand people tools and say 'go do this' anymore," Holsman said. "That appreciation is cultivated through training and measured through productivity."
Erin Volk, the agency's vice president of workforce and operations, agrees. "We need to focus more … on a generational workplace environment," she said. "That provides a basis of generalities but helps give people insight into how they impact people."
'Beyond the fundamentals'
According to Barber, the best intergenerational training happens side by side.
"Rather than keeping all older workers in one classroom, stick them in with the younger people that are learning some of the things these older folks have already experienced," she said. "Then there's this cross-talk that occurs so they wind up teaching each other."
From Barber's experience, the biggest stumbling block has been patience.
"Millennials have been raised around tech and it comes second nature to them, whereas the older worker, sometimes only 10 years older, has to stop and think about it. If you get them in the classroom together, there's this great sharing where one can teach patience and the other can teach how to use technology faster," she said.
But for instructors, the training process is two-fold — and it starts with selling the benefits of education in the first place.
"There will always be a need for the person who can do the basic skills, [but] they just won't get to do the interesting work," Barber said. "In the construction industry, fundamentals don't change."
And while training may not always be able to keep up with new technologies, for Barber, the basic premise remains.
"The workers that embrace new technology and new education will be able to move beyond those [jobsite] fundamentals," she said. "When you are able to think about things differently or apply yourself differently, then your world opens up and your opportunities within the industry are unimaginable."