As economies around the globe continue to recover from the pandemic, the forecast for construction is looking up. Overall construction growth of 15.6% is predicted in 2021, followed by steady growth over the next four quarters and a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.7% through 2025, according to a Q1 2021 update of Research&Markets’ Global Construction Outlook to 2025.
Zooming in on North America, the promise to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure appears to finally be coming to fruition. With the passing of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, investment in U.S. infrastructure over the next five years could rival that of 50 years ago, when infrastructure spending reached its peak. The U.S. commercial construction outlook is also favorable, with forecasted growth of 6% in 2021, followed by another 10% uptick in 2022.
“U.S. total construction starts are forecast to be up 4% in 2021, moving from $778 billion to $810 billion, before climbing another 8% in 2022 to $877 billion and surpassing even the 10-year high point of $856 billion in 2019.”
—Dodge Data & Analytics
In Canada, a proposed $1.9 billion will be invested over four years beginning in 2021 in the National Trade Corridors Fund to improve roads, rail and shipping routes. The total could be closer to $4.6 billion when combined with private and public sector investments. The Canada Community Revitalization Fund (CCRF) will also provide $500 million over two years to Canada's regional development agencies (RDAs) to invest in shared and inclusive public spaces.
Analysis conducted by the Centre for Spatial Economics for the Broadbent Institute found that 9.4 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in Canadian infrastructure, which equates to 9,400 jobs per $1 billion. According to a similar analysis of U.S. Bureau and Labor Statistics conducted by Associated Builders and Contractors, for every $1 billion spent on infrastructure, at least 3,000 American jobs are created. They increase that figure to 5,700 jobs for every $1 billion spent on construction overall.
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Construction Jobs Are on the Rise, But the Construction Labor Shortage Persists
While the rise in construction spending will drive significant job creation and spur economic recovery, one problem remains to be solved: where will all of these workers come from? The construction industry is already suffering from a well-publicized labor shortage. Meanwhile, the previously mentioned Associated Builders & Contractors’ analysis identified the need for 430,000 additional U.S construction workers to meet 2021 demands alone. Looking ahead, it’s predicted that the construction workforce shortage could be as high as 512,000 workers by 2023.
Construction Spending Forecast and Workforce Shortage Assumptions, 2021-2023
Source: Construction Spending and Employment: History and Forecast Terms and Sources, Associated Builders and Contractors, March 2021
To address the need for more construction workers in Canada, the government has made a three-year $470 million commitment to the establishment of a new Apprenticeship Service. The goal of this proposed program is to provide education, training, and jobs for 55,000 first-year apprentices in construction and manufacturing Red Seal trades, including electricians, concrete workers, carpenters, heavy construction operators, welders, and more. The initiative includes providing incentives to companies for hiring young workers, indigenous people, women, persons with disabilities and other individuals typically underrepresented in construction.
What the plan falls short of providing, however, are the technology education, training, and jobs also needed. In its press release announcing the proposed Apprenticeship Service program, the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) acknowledges that “additional attention needs to be paid to growing the participation of these same groups in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) so they may lead and support the industry’s digital transformation.”
In the U.S., infrastructure investment arguably also requires companion investment in job training and workforce development, but this has yet to materialize. A 2021 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) estimates that, of the new jobs created, a little more than half (53%) are expected to require a high school diploma at most. The other 47% will require some form of post-secondary education, with 15%, or 2.25 million jobs, requiring bachelor’s or graduate degrees.
Projected Education Requirements for Jobs Created by U.S. Infrastructure Investment
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS), 2019.
The Georgetown study asserts that “expanding the availability of federal funds for training programs” is needed to ensure a workforce that’s prepared to fill the new jobs infrastructure investment will create. In the meantime, educational institutions are in a unique position to help. Innovative programs like those offered at the University of Massachusetts and Vancouver Community College demonstrate how technology-enabled training is being used to develop the next generation of skilled construction workers.
UMass Amherst: Training Tech-savvy AEC Professionals
The Building and Construction Technology program at the University of Massachusetts is preparing graduates for careers in building construction and giving them the technology-based training needed to transform the construction industry. As part of the university’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the program provides a focus on sustainable building systems and practices. Graduates emerge with the skills needed to work in an increasingly green construction industry.
“Students can access and learn core tools that the industry uses. That way they can jump in immediately to 3D modeling or laser scanning, for example, when they start their careers. They can be productive and valuable on day one, and they understand more about the real intricacies of doing the work.”
—Alex Schreyer, Senior Lecturer & Program Director, Building and Construction Technology, University of Massachusetts
Through a partnership with Trimble, the program is also providing students with hands-on technology training that transfers directly to valuable on-the-job skills. The Trimble Technology Lab gives UMass students access to the latest tools available, including SketchUp for 3D visualization and modeling, Trimble laser scanners, which are used to create point clouds for BIM models, and Sefaria, Trimble’s building performance analysis software. Explains Alex Schreyer, senior lecturer and program director, “With some of our graduates, we’ve seen that they become the technology leaders in their firm or rejuvenate an older department or initiative with the fresh thinking and knowledge that comes from their courses with us.”
Vancouver Community College: Producing Job-ready Skilled Construction Laborers
The steel detailing program offered at Vancouver Community College has a long history, dating back to the 1940s. As one of only a few steel detailing training programs worldwide, the VCC program is recognized for producing graduates who are well-prepared for their roles.
As technology has advanced over the years, VCC has also incorporated software training for its students. After receiving an initial donation of Tekla software from Trimble, VCC has been teaching students how to use Tekla structural building information modeling (BIM) software since 2008. Trimble’s continued support of the program gives VCC the ability to provide students with hands-on experience in creating, combining, managing, and sharing 3D models before they even enter the workforce.
“I can’t stress how valuable [the VCC] training is for us because it provides incoming job candidates with the skills they need to succeed on day one. Otherwise, they have to learn on the job, which typically takes at least six months to a year.”
—Matt Arnott, Director of Administration, Exact Detailing
Matt Arnott, the director of administration for Exact Detailing, has been hiring VCC graduates since the 1990s. He credits the college with helping steel detailers understand the industry and what’s expected of them, as well as giving them the vocabulary needed to understand the detailing workflow.
“Graduates adapt well once they’re out on the job, and the technical skills they acquire are typically long vs. short term,” Arnott says. As someone who hires for jobs that could easily require up to a year of training, Arnott continues, “I can’t stress how valuable this training is for us because it provides incoming job candidates with the skills they need to succeed on day one.”
Attracting the Next-Gen Construction Workforce Through a Greater Focus on Technology
Despite the favorable job prospects, attracting young people to construction careers remains a challenge. A National Association of Homebuilders survey of Gen Z young adults aged 18-25 revealed that only 3% were interested in working in construction. They cite the physical demands and difficulty of the work, as well as a preference for office work, as their top reasons for looking at other careers.
What Gen Z and their slightly older millennial counterparts may not know is that construction careers offer much more than swinging hammers and hauling heavy loads. For those who don’t wish to pursue a college education, construction can provide long-term, well-paid career opportunities. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the mean hourly wage for U.S. construction workers is $19.40 per hour, or $40,350 annually. This includes hundreds of thousands of jobs that don’t require a formal education and many of which require less than six months of training. For those who do have a post-secondary education or wish to pursue one, additional opportunities open up. Jobs in construction technology, engineering, and construction management offer even higher salaries.
However, the real issue keeping young people from pursuing construction careers isn’t the pay. While salary is important, and they value security, they also want to do work that they find interesting and meaningful, offers career advancement opportunities, and appeals to their inclination toward technology. As construction is typically portrayed, it doesn’t appear to address these motivations. But focusing on the technology opportunities in construction does.
When young people envision a career in construction, they don’t imagine that it will incorporate the latest tech they see popularized online and in movies. But tools like the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 and Trimble SiteVision use mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) to visualize digital models overlaid on the physical environment. Most young folks might also be surprised to learn that construction offers the opportunity to work with cutting-edge robotics like Spot the Robot dog, as well as other autonomous technologies, including GNSS-enabled machine control and self-driving vehicles.
Certainly, job opportunities in construction exist. But to attract Gen Z and millennials, a greater focus on technology can be the key to gaining their interest. The Army has successfully used this strategy to exceed its recruiting goals, and construction can borrow from the military’s playbook to address its own skilled workforce shortage.
Innovative educational programs like those being offered at UMass and VCC that are leveraging technology to prepare students for well-paid construction careers are already helping to shift the narrative. But more focus and support is needed to revive the construction workforce and attract both young people, as well as a more diverse range of workers not typically represented in construction careers.
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