Direct Employment Needed to Boost Skills

The latest Future Skills Report from the Construction Leadership Council says that contractors should upskill for the future by directly employing staff, encouraging smart construction and updating training in the sector.

The report challenges the industry to adapt to change to improve the poor image of construction, transform sector productivity, advance quality and create a sustainable and diverse industry.

It describes the UK as being on the cusp of “one of the greatest programmes of construction in history with a pipeline of more than £600 billion”. The caveat is a challenging context with the end of Freedom of Movement and the loss of 30% of the workforce to retirement at a critical time for the industry.

The recommend three key actions:

Direct employment– A call for clients to agree a code of employment where those who contribute to a project are directly employed, thereby ensuring it is in the employer’s best interest to train their staff and benefit from improved productivity.

Encourage Smart Construction– Create an environment where Smart Construction methods are encouraged through early design and procurement processes, creating the demand for skilled employees, which in turn drives employers to invest in training.

Update Construction Training– update qualifications and training to include Smart Construction techniques and behaviours with funding made available to accelerate adoption.

The recommendations are based on sound logic and detailed context provided within the report. It does not shy away from identifying the size of the task ahead and the challenges that must be overcome. But the jury will be out for a while on whether the industry – and government – will embrace the roadmap to a more productive future.

The difficulty is that the challenges are inexorably linked to productivity, quality, skills development and more. It’s like a jigsaw that requires all the pieces to come together at once. For example, without a change in the way projects are procured and managed, margins will remain under pressure, curbing the appetite for direct employment and investment in training.

Are Apprenticeships Closing the Skills Gap?

The delivery of a fit for purpose apprenticeship program is a major component of the construction industry’s efforts to close a skills gap which, Brexit issues aside, continues to be at the mercy of increasing retirement rates and a poor pipeline of younger new entrants.

The Farmer report described the skills gap as a “ticking time bomb” and predicted a decline of 20-25% in the workforce over the next decade. Construction Industry Training Board data shows that the overall appeal of construction as a career option for young people is low, not helped by high profile failures like Carillion.

Parents often want their children to be doctors or lawyers, but why not engineers, project managers, surveyors or town planners? These are the skills that design the communities that we live in and are the fabric of our society.

The Government’s Apprenticeship Levy was introduced in 2017 to encourage employers to hire apprentices but in its first year there was a 26% drop in new apprenticeships, perhaps due to a lack of clarity about the new initiative.

The latest figures from the National Audit Office show that UK employers deposited £2.2bn into the levy in 2017-18 but only 9% has been accessed and reinvested in staff training programs.

Businesses have to draw the total value of their levy payments to fund apprenticeships within two years of the payment dates or after that they are forfeit to the Treasury. But many companies still see it as a stealth tax and argue that if take up is to improve the Government needs to simplify the bureaucracy and better explain that the programme covers a very wide range of subject specialisms at many levels.

Many projects require contractors to create a specific number of apprenticeships and job placements but there is evidence that in many cases these individuals return to the training pool once a project is complete. Having the security of a place being allocated and a potential future in employment at the end of an apprenticeship is the best motivation to encourage take up. So maybe the KPI’s on these projects need to be reviewed to reflect that and improve the likelihood of a job at the of the process.

For any chance of apprenticeships to close the skills gap in construction, the sector needs to work together and engage more effectively with schools and pupils to overcome the negative perceptions that currently exist. Stronger links to education would result in the teaching of relevant skills and a clear understanding of the opportunities and rewards that are on offer in the construction sector.  The industry needs to overcome the barriers in schools that are so often heavily focused on exam results and don’t have adequate resources to properly consider where pupils will gain employment. Perhaps the education sector needs to build in processes to measure their effective contribution to future employment, which is an important indicator of the value of school learning.

We need to promote the benefits of working on projects that for many years will serve our communities and remain as long term legacies.

Construction is a Target for Cyber Criminals

As the use of technology in construction grows rapidly, there is a very real danger that a lack of investment in protection is leaving projects and companies exposed – and cyber criminals are taking note.

A recent Government survey identified that over a third of business in the UK had experienced a cyber breach in the last year but only 33% have cyber security policies in place.

A report from the Department of Health noted that the WannaCry cyber attack on the NHS cost the organisation £92 million and was largely blamed on the use of old software systems that had simply not been updated.

The growth of BIM has had a dramatic effect on modern construction and is expected to have been adopted by 90% of the companies in the next three to five years.  As a computer based control system, it allows shared access for contractors and creates a central repository for huge amounts of data.

It doesn’t take an expert to understand the effect of an attack on a large construction project if information and control systems are closed down for days or weeks or designs amended without signoff from the design team. That’s why it is surprising that two thirds of companies have no cyber security policy in place to mitigate the risk, leaving themselves incredibly vulnerable.

In an industry where risk is carefully managed it would be interesting to know how often cyber security is identified and reviewed on project risk registers.

Cyber criminals see the potential for success in targeting construction because the combination of extensive document sharing using cloud services and a supply chain of many third parties makes it attractive.

While most businesses now have at least basic firewall and network security, the majority of attacks are phishing or social engineering based, or simply employee negligence.

Although most now have technical IT measures in place to secure networks, they need to recognise that humans are always the weakest link. A human has to make the decision to invest (or not) in solutions that mitigate risk and commit the business to maintaining a secure environment. You can have as many steps in a technical authentication process as you like, but how can you legislate for the staff member who clicks a link in a sophisticated phishing email or plugs an infected USB stick into a network device.

Every project needs to have a minimum IT standard for all of the supply chain, along with a digital risk assessment that is reviewed on an ongoing basis. That will take care of the technical aspect, but it should also be supported by a clear staff policy promoted to everyone involved in the project with continuous education and awareness programmes.

Hopefully it won’t take a successful cyber attack on a high profile construction project for the sector to recognise that a robust cyber risk management programme should be at the top of the agenda on every project.

Construction’s Digital Future is Overdue

In a sector that is desperate to improve productivity and efficiency, it seems paradoxical that construction remains one of the least digitised industries, only beating agriculture and hunting, according to McKinsey

Construction needs to catch up quickly and realise the benefits can come from disruptive technology solutions.

The Centre for Digital Built Britain recently released its Gemini Principles report which identified that greater data sharing could release £7bn per year in benefits across the UK. It will do this by enabling better decisions leading to financial savings, improved performance and service along with better outcomes for business and society as a whole.

A recent survey undertaken by technology specialist NBS found that 90% of respondents recognise that digitisation will transform how they work and that 70% think that those who do not adopt digital ways of working will go out of business. Many also see technology as an opportunity to develop offsite construction, with 41% already designing for offsite and a further third planning to do so within 5 years.

Digital technology goes way beyond BIM, which is just one core aspect of its potential application across the construction sector. Whether it’s drones for digital mapping and surveying, moving to paperless collaborative projects, 3D printing or increased use of artificial intelligence, McKinsey estimates that the industry can improve productivity by around 15% by infusing digital technologies across the construction process.

There are a number of significant robotic solutions about to break into the industry.  It is about to be possible to use a 3D printing robot to build a large building. A mobile robotic arm controls a 3D printer that builds an entire structurally safe building using a preprogrammed set of instructions. This technology has already been successfully used to build bridges in Netherlands.

We are now seeing robots that can undertake brickwork and masonry, dramatically improving speed and quality.  Demolition robots have been developed to demolish concrete and structural components that may be slower than humans but are far safer and cheaper.

Among the main inhibitors in the industry is a fragmented understanding of digital skills along with short term pressures that restrict investment in technology. Without the right conditions for innovation demand for digital skills will continue to be slow wasting precious opportunities for improved productivity and efficiency.

Putting ideas into practice is recognisably difficult in a sector that designs and delivers complex projects with little margin for error or waste, but none of it is going to get any easier.  Projects continue to get bigger and even more complex and a growing demand for environmentally sensitive construction, along with a persistent skills gap, makes digital construction technologies a no brainer.

There will never be a more obvious time to embrace the benefits of digitalisation.

Brexit Shines a Light on Skills Gap

As the country extends the official date for leaving the EU none the wiser on what Brexit actually means for anyone, or if it will ever happen, many red flags have been raised about the risk to a construction sector heavily reliant on EU labour.

There is no doubt that Brexit will impact the sector and may result in fewer EU workers coming to the UK, but rather than create the skills shortage Brexit has simply shone a light on a situation that the sector has struggled with for years. It exacerbates a pre-existing underlying condition where the symptoms have been obvious, but treatment and cure has so far been elusive.

Around 7% of the workforce in the UK construction sector are EU nationals, that’s more than the percentage of EU nationals working in all other industries in the UK. On top of a pre-existing skills gap that’s more than the sector can bear.

A coalition of construction industry organisations and the Construction Industry Training Board recently published a “Building After Brexit” action plan that recommends a twin track strategy to address skills shortages. It identifies the need for growing investment in the domestic workforce and driving up productivity while working with government to agree how to maintain access to migrant workers.

The report also recommends attracting talent by raising apprenticeships starts and completions and creating pathways to construction for underrepresented groups along with providing better work experience opportunities. It seeks to retain workforce, supporting older workers to stay in the industry and identifies the need for a Future Skills Strategy to identify skills to modernise the industry and boost investment in modern methods of construction.

The industry has been talking about how to deal with the underlying condition of skills shortage for years. Maybe the intensifying of pain caused by Brexit will be enough of a catalyst for a much needed treatment and effective long term cure.

Are We Ready for Artificial Intelligence in Construction?

Since the mid nineties productivity in manufacturing has more than doubled while over the same period in the construction sector it has barely improved.

One of the main reasons attributed to this is that construction is one of the slowest sectors in the world to adopt new technologies. But machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) is gradually becoming recognised as a potential game changer in construction efficiency.

The construction sector has become very good at creating data – lots of it. The availability of so much data presents challenges to those (humans) trying to analyse its meaning, sometimes slowing critical decision making or smothering the obvious simple answers. But machines love data and the more of it there is, the better that they can learn from it.

There is a huge potential for the application of AI in construction. Because AI can analyse data that overwhelms humans it can alert the critical issues that need a project manager’s attention, saving the hours it would normally take to make the analysis.

We are already seeing the use of AI in BIM modelling as new technology creates modelling systems that learn from each design iteration to make sure that mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans don’t clash with building architecture and actually create the optimum solution.

One AI company has now developed robots that can physically scan construction sites and feed the data back to a neural network that identifies progress on all aspects of the project.  Self-driving machinery will become more prevalent on sites for repetitive work and many construction companies already use AI to manage resources more effectively.

A recent McKinsey report said that real time analysis of data could improve productivity in construction by up to 50%. Imagine the value of that to HS2 or Crossrail.

While some fear significant job losses to AI, in reality it’s unlikely to replace the human workforce but there is absolutely no doubt that in the construction sector it will change business models, increase efficiency and reduce expensive errors.