In spite of recovering major ground after the Great Recession, the construction industry is still facing troubling skilled labor shortages, with a lack of qualified candidates stepping up to take over the positions once held by industry veterans nearing retirement age. The construction industry lost 2.3 million jobs between 2006-2011, and today there are a million fewer residential construction jobs than before 2006, according to Tradesmen International.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey shows nearly 200,000 unfilled construction industry jobs nationwide. This gap between available positions and skilled workers ready to fill them puts added pressure on developers, contractors and owners. Even in the face of a worker shortage, construction is booming. Companies are now looking to technological solutions to shore up operations, increase efficiencies and do more with less.
Drones and AI
The use of drone technology and artificial intelligence has gone a long way to cut labor costs and reduce the number of workers needed for complex projects. Drones equipped with sophisticated 3D mapping capabilities or cameras can buzz high above construction sites, creating highly accurate models of work in progress, and relaying photographs and other data to site managers to monitor progress, even remotely. This work used to involve several workers manually mapping everything out over the course of several hours. With a drone, the same job can be accomplished in 10 minutes.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasingly finding their way to construction companies, who harness their data crunching capabilities to better plan for distribution of labor and machinery across jobs. A robotic brain constantly evaluating job progress and even the location of workers and equipment enables human managers to tell at a glance which jobsites have enough workers and gear to complete the project on schedule, and which might be falling behind where additional labor could be deployed.
We’re still a ways off from robots taking over construction jobs en masse, but there are already some companies making self-driving construction machinery to do repetitive tasks more efficiently than their human counterparts can manage, such as pouring concrete, bricklaying, welding and even demolition. Excavation and other prep work is also being completed by autonomous or semi-autonomous bulldozers, which can ready a jobsite with the help of a human programmer to exact specifications. Robotic workers completing these functions frees up humans for the construction work itself, and saves time on the front-end of a project.
Collaboration tools and software help keep workers on task, and ensure everyone has easy access to a job’s specifications, change orders and drawings. Technology like Building Information Modeling (BIM) creates hyper-realistic 3D and 4D models of any structure, creating a collaboratively-editable digital version of a job in progress, which can then easily be altered, with every worker and manager instantly aware of the changes. The system also can show any potential problems with the plans that ordinarily might not be discovered until the work is underway, which could lead to a time-consuming and costly diversion of labor resources to correct the error.
Construction companies are increasingly relying on factories staffed by autonomous robots, which piece together components of a home or other structures, and these pieces are then shipped to their final destination and pieced together by human workers. Simple structures like walls and facades can be completed assembly-line style by autonomous machinery much faster and more efficiently than their human counterparts, leaving specialty contractors to finish the detail work like plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems when the structure is fitted together.
Traditionally, construction has had a complicated relationship with technology, but the shortage of skilled labor coupled with the surging demand for building projects has forced the industry to re-evaluate that relationship to make up the shortfall.