Upskilling Construction: technology and skills to drive productivity in construction

Politicians and industry leaders care a lot about productivity – that is, increasing the amount we produce per dollar spent. Essentially, if a business or industry is doing more with less, it is being productive.

They care because a productive economy is a healthy one. Productivity means extra value is being added to what we produce, and this means more income and increased living standards. Without productivity, we stagnate ­– arguably nothing contributes more to our collective standard of living.

Productivity is a particularly important issue at the moment because it has all but collapsed in Australia since the early noughties. This collapse has occurred despite huge increases in investment and new workers, thanks largely to the mining boom. We have been producing more – much more – but for over a decade we’ve failed to do so with less.

Given the construction industry’s importance to the economy—it is the single greatest contributor to Queensland’s economic output—productivity is not something we can afford to ignore. The productivity of the construction industry will play a big part in the story of our future collective wellbeing.

Construction workers will be front-and-centre in the campaign to put the economy back onto a productive path. There are a few key drivers of productivity, and perhaps none are more important than technology and skills development. This applies especially to the construction industry, where the two factors are inseparable.

Technology makes it possible for an industry to do more with less. Think about the time savings gifted by the nail gun, or the efficiencies opened up by the crane. The ‘90s were exceptionally productive thanks to all the inventions and applications of computers and the internet.

But for technology to drive productivity, there needs to be people who can drive the technology. Hence the importance of skills development. No productivity gains can come from a construction site full of cutting‑edge machinery that no one can operate.

The Farsight Project is a research partnership between CSQ and CSIRO exploring the most critical driver of productivity in the construction industry – future technology and the skills needed by the next generation of construction workers to harness it. The research has already revealed some compelling trends.

One trend is that the construction workforce is already becoming significantly more skilled. For the last 30 years, the size of the low-skilled construction workforce has been moving sideways while the number of higher skilled workers has been rocketing upward.

The number of workers in occupations that command higher-level qualifications (Diploma and Advanced Diploma) has been increasing steadily since 1986, and is now around three times greater than it was then.

In contrast, lower qualified (Certificate I, II and III) labourer and trade workers have been growing much more modestly, with barely 50% growth. And almost all of this growth seems to have been a mining-induced anomaly that is now being reversed. The net result is almost no change.

Technology is likely to have been a major catalyst of this shift toward higher skilled workers. As more and more sophisticated technologies and processes have been introduced on construction sites, workers have needed higher and higher levels of training.

The Farsight Project is finding strong signs that this trend is set to accelerate. Technological disruption is likely to speed-up significantly over the next 20 years, rewriting the very DNA of the construction industry in terms of robotics, advanced materials and offsite fabrication.

Research undertaken by consulting firm PWC suggests that lower-skilled construction jobs face a high risk of being automated. Glaziers, plasterers and tilers, for example, are estimated to have an 80% chance of being automated in the next 20 years. This is consistent with similar research from Oxford University which found the bulk of construction occupations have a 75% or greater chance of being automated.

Does this mean the construction workforce will be slashed by 75% between now and 2035? That scenario is highly unlikely. Instead, the face of the industry could simply look completely different in 20 years – the number of construction jobs may not change very much, but up to 75% of them may be unrecognisable from today’s standpoint.
The critical question is, how will the jobs change and what skills will be needed to do them? That is the question at the heart of The Farsight Project, which will be canvassed in depth in our final report. Until then, we can offer some tentative answers.
In general terms, we expect the emphasis to shift from skillsets focussed on manual dexterity and physical labour, to skillsets focussed on the intelligent and precise use of technology.

Technology is very likely to insert itself into the construction industry in ways that are unimaginable to many in the industry today. According to MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, a growth spurt on the scale of the industrial revolution is about to grip the global economy, driven by a string of imminent step-changes in computer science, advanced materials and other technologies.

If these predictions are even partially accurate, construction skills that are repetitive and heavy on rigid procedure are likely to be delegated to machines. This trend will be accelerated if prefabrication takes off, as we have argued elsewhere that it may well do. In controlled, factory conditions, fabrication and materials handling are within the reach of robots.

The workforce will, in turn, need to become even more highly skilled and technically specialised. The average construction worker will be increasingly paid according to her (there are likely to be more women) ability to work with machines. The traditional ‘manual labourer’ will claim a much smaller share of the workforce.

But machines will not do the work alone. They will require humans to point them in the right directions, to at least identify the problems that need solving. Examples already abound – the skills of a modern cabinetmaker operating a CNC machine bear little resemblance to those of a traditional craftsman skilled in chisels and handsaws. But the CNC machine lays idle without human expertise.

So the challenge for the construction training system is to create workers with higher levels of technological literacy.

Another skillset likely to be accorded much more value in the future is complex communication. The sophistication of the future construction site will put a premium on information exchange. Smart as they are, machines look unlikely to eclipse humans in this domain anytime soon. Human roles on the construction site will increasingly be dominated by the collection, analysis and presentation of information to other humans.

Where once it was enough to find someone ‘good with their hands’, future employers will be looking for people who are ‘good with their keyboards and good with their words.’

This information is correct as at: 9/22/2018. Please visit the website to view the most up-to-date information.