Making the grade?

Making the grade?

The construction industry is paramount in all economies across the globe, yet skills shortages are preventing this sector from reaching its full potential. Does it have to be this way?

Memory Takawira, senior quantity surveyor at the Department of Public Works, says that the construction industry plays an important role in the national and global economies.

In her research paper, “Addressing Skill Shortages in the South African Residential Construction Industry Through Automation – a Case of Gauteng Region”,* she notes that this industry contributes up to 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in developed countries and more than 25% in developing nations.

“In South Africa, since 2008, the industry has been contributing an average of 9% of the total employment in both formal and informal sectors and around 9% towards the GDP. Despite playing such a significant role in the nation’s economy, researches have shown that the industry is crippled with many challenges which, amongst others, include shortages of skilled personnel to do the work.”

Earlier studies on skills shortages within the construction industry focused on education and training as a remedy – “but this has failed to yield the desired solutions, as the skills shortages are still being felt despite heavy investments in education and training,” she says.

She notes that a more radical approach is needed to overcome these challenges, with her study evaluating the potential use of robotics, construction automation (CA) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“The use of CA and AI is driven by the current skills shortage and the need to boost the industry’s low productivity levels. Through real time data analysis, there is a possibility of increasing construction productivity by more than 50%. This is according to a 2017 McKinsey report.

“AI and machine learning are being used to better plan and manage the distribution of machine and labour across different work stations. The evaluation of on-site job progress and the location of workers and equipment by a robot enable project managers to advise which job sites have enough workers and equipment to complete the project on schedule, and identify the ones falling behind where additional labour could be deployed.”

Takawira says that the idea is to have robots perform labour-intensive and time-consuming processes through algorithmic programming and machine learning.

“This liberates human employees for the construction work and condenses the overall time required to complete the project. This is one of the many ways enhanced automation will take on manufacturing duties, making up time for humans to concentrate on greater design and engineering dares.”

Education and training remain paramount

“Those of you familiar with the work of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will be familiar with his 10 000-hour rule – it takes this many hours to master a particular skill,” explains MDA Consulting co-founder and director Ian Massey in his Bizcommunity piece: “The skills shortage in the construction industry and what we need to do about it”.

“We have a similar rule of thumb in the construction industry: it takes 15 years to develop a competent engineer, quantity surveyor, foreman or supervisor.”

He adds: “Obviously, the quality of the tertiary education is important, but it is how we help and nurture these newly qualified recruits that is crucial. Given the time required to develop the right level of competency, this is not something that can happen in a couple of years.”

Massey states that, compared to many other industries, the construction industry is poor at providing a structured learning and training environment to make sure that the right lessons are learned.

“Too many people are hard-wired to do things incorrectly and often apply bad practices as a result. We use two-day training programmes as a means of supplying specialist skills. Mentoring programmes are also provided
under certain circumstances. In my view, this quick fix approach is unsatisfactory. We need more structure to ensure that we develop competent, skilled people to strengthen our local industry and who can compete on the international stage.

“We therefore need a more favourable environment that should include:

• A more consistent work flow. The promised infrastructure spend must start coming into the market if we want our construction industry to survive and remain active in South Africa. This action is in government’s hands.

• In addition to community upliftment facilities and minimum local employment requirements included in all government agency contracts, meaningful training requirements should also be introduced, not just for the project in question but for each trainee on a long-term basis.

• Organisations should be encouraged by tax breaks and other incentives to introduce similar training schemes as traditional apprenticeships.

• Measures should be taken to encourage young people to become tradespeople. Being a technically competent tradesperson should be promoted as a desirable career.

• We should implement opportunities to move across from being a tradesperson and acquire college diplomas and degrees to become a technician or engineer.

• Professional development of degree and diploma recipients should be more structured. This can be done in association with professional bodies

• Mentoring and mentorship programmes must be adopted and become a requirement across the board of the skills spectrum. We have a finite window of opportunity to use our ‘grey beard’ resources to assist in the development of all skills levels. Let’s not waste it!”

Shortages abound internationally too…

The shortage of skills within the construction industry isn’t only confined within South Africa’s borders – as noted by the international energy company Shell, in its piece, “Mind the Gap: Addressing the Construction Skills Crisis”.

“According to the EU Commission, three million construction workers lack the skills they need in energy efficiency and renewable energy. In Germany, two thirds of companies say they have problems recruiting the right people with the requisite expertise. In the UK, the number of engineering students dropped by 11,8% in the last few years, despite the number of job vacancies in the construction sector increased by over 130%.”

The sector’s workforce is also ageing. “In the UK, 22% of construction workers are over 50 years old. While construction firms are beginning to look seriously at recruiting and training more Gen Z workers, the emphasis is still firmly on finding millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) – which raises the prospect of the skills shortage persisting for some time to come.”

The energy company notes that the industry is also underusing the talents and availability of female staff. “In the UK, for example, fewer than 10% of all construction professionals are women. Across Europe as a whole, that figure is only slightly higher, at exactly 10%, despite government and industry efforts to address the imbalance.”

These demographic challenges make it even more important that the sector does more to attract a wider range of skilled new workers, while upgrading the skills of those already in the sector.

“Even the most determined recruitment drive will take some time to get new workers into the pipeline and train them. Similarly, even the most comprehensive of training programmes won’t have an immediate impact on the breadth of skills available.”

* This research paper was submitted as part of the requirements to fulfil her Master of Science Degree in Construction Project Management, which she completed at the School of Construction Economics and Management in the University of the Witwatersrand’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.

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