If the construction sector is to capitalise upon the pandemic’s digital bounce, new skills are needed. Now!
COVID-19 affected communities globally. None more so than the global construction sector. Sites around the world were eerily empty, equipment stood idle and unloved, and many workers took enforced breaks from progressing projects.
It is almost three years since the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. I know, three years? What are we seeing now in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) sector? What’s changed?
According to Townsend and Turner, most markets have recovered from the initial impact of COVID-19 but the invasion of Ukraine and lockdowns in China influence construction markets and the global economy.
Take the Middle East as an example there’s a wealth of significant projects underway across the region. With the FIFA World Cup just around the corner, there’s been feverish activity to complete stadia and hotels in advance of the influx of visitors to the region.
It definitely isn’t all plain sailing. Continuing supply chain disruptions, skills shortages and surging construction costs are generating some of the most challenging market conditions since the onset of the pandemic.
Given my role, I’ve a particular interest in what’s going on in labour markets and the impact on training needs around the world.
Labour and skills markets challenged
Skilled labour shortages were causing concern long before the COVID-19 pandemic caused havoc around the globe. These shortages have continued to grow in most markets around the world. In Townsend and Turner’s 2022 survey of the construction sector, 79.6 per cent of markets were experiencing skills shortages.
And there’s more. The Great Resignation.
A term first coined by Professor Anthony Klotz, Associate Professor of Management, Organisations and Innovation Group, UCL School of Management:
“The pandemic has caused millions of people to reflect on their lives more broadly, and to question whether their jobs are helping or hindering their pursuit of happiness and meaning.”
This pausing for reflection has turned into action – and has had a significant effect on an already strained labour market. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were three million fewer workers in the US in 2022.
This trend is reflected in the construction sector. Labour availability has decreased significantly since 2021. In 2021, 64.4 per cent of markets experienced skills shortages, 15.1 percentage points below 2022 returns (Turner & Townsend International construction market survey 2022). 60% of respondents said skilled labour shortages had a significant or high impact on the delivery of construction projects
As we set out in our review of the post-pandemic construction sector, Reinvent to Rebound, the future of the industry is one built around digitisation and an increase in technology use.
We’ve seen how organisations emerging successfully from the pandemic have embraced digital. Emerging and embedded digital capabilities have allowed teams to be productive and deliver business-critical actions, wherever they are. Organisations have challenged the conventional wisdom that teams need to be in specific locations, and that interacting face-to-face is the only way to deliver value and efficiency. Technology has enabled processes and speeds interactions between contractor, client and other parties in the AEC ecosystem.
Talking to colleagues across our training network, I’ve heard stories of organisations accelerating their digital transformation journeys. Partly because they’ve had to. But more often than not, because they know that they have to transform to keep up.
This is borne out in the results of some McKinsey research I read recently. The survey of top executives around the world found that companies accelerated their digitization of customer, supply chain, and internal operations by an average of three years.
“The mandate for change and technological adoption in construction has never been stronger, and financial and strategic investors continue to fuel a rapid expansion of the construction technology industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to provide additional urgency to the pre-existing productivity and data-visibility issues facing construction companies.”
(The next chapter in construction technology, McKinsey)
As the industry creates more digitally oriented roles, companies are seeking data engineers, data scientists, coders, and developers. Companies are investing in employees to develop the skills needed to perform the job and gain knowledge of digital technologies such as BIM, digital twins, smart project management, and connected construction.
The sector has acknowledged that action is needed to address the skills it needs now and for the future. As my colleague, Basheer Mustafa, from the Engineering Science Institute (Esi) in Saudi Arabia put it:
“The AEC sector is accelerating considerably. It is important that this potential isn’t curtailed by a lack of the necessary digital skills in organisations in the AEC sector.”
Digitally-enabled processes and remote working have been proven to work across the AEC ecosystem. The adoption of BIM is only going to grow, as more and more nations mandate its use, and more organisations realise its benefits. AEC players across the world need to get ahead of the game, supporting the adoption of new working practices and investing time in developing BIM skills today.
There’s no better time to upskill the entire workforce and invest in training on new tools and technologies (such as BIM) and operating procedures.
From my perspective, collective action is needed to help the sector ride the wave of the rebounding construction sector. Academia, industry and training providers need to play a part in making these ambitions a reality. Together they can build resilience, capacity and capability.
Tomas Karlsson is the head of channel services at KnowledgePoint. This means he oversees the management of outsourced extended enterprise learning programmes, recruiting and supporting global network of training providers on behalf of clients. These programmes include developing resources to support sector engagement by training network partners. The latest resources produced as part of KP’s work with Autodesk can be found here.