Adjusting To The New Normal

Lewis Naylor

CFO at DJM Design CAD & Coordination, supercharging construction workflows with CAD, BIM, & coordination. Follow us @DJMCAD.

“There is no getting ‘back to normal,’ experts say. The sooner we accept that, the better,” read a September headline from CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh. Another from USA Today’s Joel Shannon echoed the above sentiment with the title, “When will things go back to normal? Experts say that’s the wrong question amid COVID-19.” Additional articles address the same idea. A line has been crossed, and we will not be going back.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a fundamental shift in the way the world conducts business. The forced digital transformation caused a foundational adjustment in every industry. For laggards like construction, this process was a painful one. Many small to mid-size firms were unprepared for such a dramatic change. However, complying was compulsory, and as the world continues to conduct business digitally, a future of digital construction is inevitable.

Lagging Behind Other Industries

Construction’s growth has been stagnant in comparison to other industries. The Economist reported that 90{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34} of the global infrastructure projects are either late or over budget. Similar findings from McKinsey show that construction’s productivity has grown by only 1{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34} over the past two decades. When compared with the global average increase of 2.8{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34}, or manufacturing’s impressive 3.6{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34}, it is concerning. Much of this lag is due to a resistance to technological innovation. The global consulting giant recommends stakeholders leverage digital technology, augmenting repetitive tasks with automation and reskilling the workforce as the skilled trade gap continues to grow.

The Skilled Trade Gap Is Growing

The skilled trades gap has been a concern for the past few decades. In the late 2000s, the Great Recession put many contractors out of work, and many of them never came back. Rob Dietz, the chief economist and senior vice president for economics and housing policy for the National Association of Home Builders, summarized the issue like this, “The construction industry lost 1.5 million workers during the recession, and we’ve only brought back about 600,000. The median age of a construction worker right now is more than 40 years old. The long-term problem is, who’s going to be the next generation of construction workers?”

Unfortunately, the next generation isn’t going into construction as much as earlier generations did. In an episode of All Things Considered, NPR’s Ashley Gross and Jon Marcus pointed out the need for some remarketing of trade jobs. Today’s young people incur large amounts of college debt, while high-paying trade jobs remain vacant. These concerns were all prevalent before the pandemic and are increasing as Covid-19 continues.

The Digital Solution

While the skilled trade and productivity gap are two separate issues, digital construction could help close both by providing needed remedies to inherent problems in both. Digital construction has been steadily growing in popularity since Sketchpad’s release in the 1960s. The adoption rate of digital construction tools grew in the past year due to the pandemic. Large-scale adoption could eliminate the inefficient processes plaguing the industry’s productivity.

Construction’s productivity issues stem from design mistakes. These mistakes translate to errors on-site and require additional hours and materials to fix. A study from PlanGrid and FMI shows that mistakes, searching for project data and managing conflicts add up to an additional $177.5 billion annually in the U.S. The study also shows that nearly half of the time, these issues are caused by inaccurate project data and ineffective communication.

To solve this lack of data, construction companies should adopt a digital strategy that encompasses the entire project life cycle. Using a combination of tools such as 3D scanning, building information modeling and a project management system could save companies thousands. Cutting back on unnecessary expenses that stem from wasteful practices could increase productivity by trimming the 30{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34} of construction work that is rework. An analysis from McKinsey found that process improvements and innovation could have a 50{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34}-60{fbc7a75af74adfbeb2d3baecdf7daa64e5d3521205059ee8f1fef6bec19bbc34} boost to productivity and that bringing construction into the digital era could improve the industry’s value by a whopping $1.6 trillion. These compelling data points prove one thing: Digital construction has an incredible financial opportunity.

The added value extends to recruitment as well. A major strike against construction in the eyes of younger generations is how technophobic the industry is. Profiles on the generation highlight how digitally inclined millennials are and how highly they value the use of technology in their jobs. By adding more jobs focused on emergent technologies, construction will more successfully attract a younger workforce.

The creation of construction technology jobs will also indirectly alleviate some of the pressures on site. By streamlining and outlining operations, contractors could trim the amount of time spent fixing mistakes. This would maximize the labor available and allow tradespeople to do more in less time. The compelling case for time and cost savings can no longer be ignored.

A Future Full Of Opportunity

In a Construction Executive article, our company’s head of 3D scanning, John Brown, said, “While COVID-19 has disrupted almost everything in our lives and businesses, the way forward is through innovation.” In these uncertain times, nothing could be truer.

As I reflect on 2020, it is encouraging to see how the industry has already proven its resilience. unveiled an AI-powered tool for social distancing, and AECOM launched a virtual consultation tool. Countless other companies have innovated solutions.

Many in construction are wary of the new year as Covid-19 continues to affect project schedules. In times of crisis, however, the human spirit is at its strongest. By leveraging the emergent technologies available, construction can emerge stronger, despite the pandemic.

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