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Building a futureproof construction workforce

The World Economic Forum says full-scale digitisation of the construction industry could generate up to an estimated $1.7tn in annual cost savings worldwide.

But how does the industry make sure the right skills are in place to make the most of this opportunity? And what exactly do they look like?

That’s a question for the here and now, according to Professor David McClean, head of The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.

Professor McClean said: “If we are thinking, as some professions are saying, that by 2030 there will be a sea-change in the way they operate, then with a bit of planning time added on, that’s 2 cycles of a degree away.

David McClean Crop

Professor David McClean urges universities and construction to plan for the skills the industry will need in 10-15 years, now

“So universities need to be thinking of that … now in terms of the skills we’re looking for in 10-15 years’ time.”

He cites the example of the announcement last year that Amazon had invested in Californian home design and prefabrication company Plant Prefab as indicative of the disruptors keen to enter the construction market, likely attracted by emerging technologies and digitisation. He added businesses already operating in the sector need to be on their game to take advantage of the changing landscape.

Plant Prefab factory Rialto, California

Disruptors are beginning to enter the construction market, with Amazon stepping into bricks and mortar in September last year, with its investment in Plant Prefab

The right skills?

In its Shaping the future of construction — future scenarios and implications report, the WEF says these new skills could include expertise in Artificial Intelligence, data analysis, programming, resilience and robotics as well as engineering experts who can train, supervise and maintain robots.

Yet even so, how does the sector attract and train the best people?

WEF says 74% of the engineering and construction chief executives who took part in its annual meeting last year in Davos saw attracting new talent and improving the capabilities of the existing workforce as one of its top 3 actions for keeping pace with upcoming “disruptions”.

WEF Construction Report Priorities For Transforming The Industry

74% of chief executives in the WEF’s ‘Shaping the Future of Construction’ report, saw attracting talent and building the right skills as key for keeping pace with upcoming disruptions

The other 2 were improving integration and collaboration (65%) and adopting advanced technologies at scale (61%).

To do this, the report says the industry needs to expand where it looks for talent, improve the sector’s image and establish continuous learning and development practices.

McClean said: “Areas like construction management are well known to be difficult to attract undergrads into… The image issue the industry has to address is that it’s not about welly boots and hard hats, it’s about many more things than that. There have been tremendous advances in some areas [such as] pre-fabrication, automation and robotics, and that sits cheek by jowl with somebody in their high-vis jacket building with their hands on site.”

McClean adds: “I think it needs that dialogue to speculate and think about the big picture that’s emerging and how the industry will respond to that; what skills might require to be developed.”

He adds last week the school met with regional industry representatives in the first of a series of steering group meetings to look at what skills might be needed in the future, and how the university can cater for those requirements.

As for McClean, he believes these changing “pathways and routes” into the property professions such as ‘learn as you earn’ and work-based learning will multiply as higher and further education adapts to suit the sector’s needs.

Meantime, recent additions to its prospectus include the graduate apprenticeship BSc (Hons) construction for the built environment course, launched in autumn last year.

McClean says this “inverse” model of an apprenticeship sees 14 students working for 10 employers across Scotland, spending more than 90% of their time in the workplace. The course itself is primarily delivered online with periodic days on campus.

The school also offers an MSc in building information modelling or BIM management, a suite of modules, again available online, which was developed in response to the “steady advance of BIM as a tool nationally and internationally.”

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