Capacity Gap, Skills Gap or Imagination Gap?

“The issue of the construction industry’s capacity gap and skills shortage both in terms of trades and construction management has been a hot topic since our emergence from the last recession, but is our industry’s fixation on recruiting and training a work force to deliver today’s construction needs, blind siding us to the skills we will need to meet the very different demands of future construction?
Deloitte, the Big Four accountancy firm, and the University of Oxford research In 2014 concluded that as  much as 35% of jobs across the country will be made redundant by technical advances over the next 10 to 20 years – some 10.8m positions.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills’ estimated that around 500,000 construction jobs will be compromised, in the next 20 years by ‘Disruptive Innovation’ (new businesses, markets, processes and technology that usurp and eventually overhaul existing convention).
Offering a more positive prognosis, Department of Employment and Pensions research indicates that 65% of today’s primary school children will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.
To give some context to the suggested 10 – 20 year timeframe for this transformation, the smart phone and the rise of the mobile App is only 10 years old and yet in that short space of time these devices have transformed our lives in ways that even their designers admit far surpass even their imaginings creating new markets, businesses and consumers.
Similarly, robotics and artificial intelligence are already resident in many homes with Smart Meters monitoring and managing utility usage, while home appliances run self diagnostics and communicate with their manufacturers to book their own repairs.
These innovations have  reduced the requirement for the likes of meter readers and service call centre staff and this then has a domino effect on infrastructure requirements such as the size of office premises required and in turn the support service providers etc.
The construction industry is ripe for such Disruptive Innovation for two key reasons (1) current production capacity is insufficient for market demands and (2) although there are a infinite number of building designs and component configurations, the vast majority of components are of a standardised design and the major activities involve repetitive processes (bricklaying, roofing, curtain walling, cladding, ceilings & partitions, flooring  etc), and repetitive processes are the easiest to automate.
Ford’s famous Dagenham production facility once employed more than 40,000 people, today it’s less than 4,000, with 95% of the production process automated and computer managed, including procurement and  logistics.
BIM can map building design, components and interfaces (the what) and mapping the ‘assembly’ process (the how) which just a computer program away from conveying instructions to a robotic delivery team (the do).
Currently the construction phase is the weakest link in the process and as hard as we may try, so long as humans carry it out there will inevitably be human error.
A number of prototype bricklaying robots able to lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour (a good human bricklayer lays around 500-600 per DAY)have already undergone extensive trialling on sites in the US and Australia and some of the largest UK contractors are also committing significant sums to R&D of robotics, 3D printing and offsite modular construction (to name but a few).
While there is no doubt that such automation will cause significant upheaval and fundamentally change the way we approach construction, it will also present unrivalled opportunities to minimise risk in just about every form, from health and safety to cost and quality certainty.
Without the traditional financial burden of human operative costs such as  remuneration and pensions or the operational vagaries of individuals capabilities and  reliability, the use of robotics could see main contractors return to self delivery.
While such a radical change to the MC business model will signal the demise of some activities and markets it will also create new ones with new employment opportunities both within the main contractor and through new service networks created to support self delivery.
A key part of our (Osborne) development strategy is becoming a learning organisation and this has never been more relevant and will be a defining factor in ensuring our future success, but we must learn quickly and start now, from trainees to senior leadership we must equip ourselves with skills for both the present and the (very near) future construction industry.”

John Robeson is Group Head of Supply Chain at Osborne.