Solving the Construction Labor Crunch, One Exoskeleton at a Time

The construction industry is facing a demographic crisis that has been building for years—a crisis that has led to a labor shortage unlike anything the industry has experienced in the past. All of us have experienced this labor crunch firsthand at our companies, where filling open positions becomes harder each week. But the numbers are staggering when looked at from a macro perspective. In the U.S., there is a shortage of hundreds of thousands of workers across the industry. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce, www.uschamber.com, Washington, D.C., study in Q1, reported that 70% of construction companies are feeling the labor crunch. That labor shortage is a reality everywhere, but it is particularly pronounced in high-growth states. Colorado, for example, is projected to experience a labor shortfall of 30,000 workers—in one state alone.

Labor imbalances are nothing new in our industry. There is a natural ebb and flow to labor trends based on the cyclicality of so many sectors of the construction industry, but this labor crunch is not a cyclical blip in the balance of supply and demand. This is a fundamental imbalance that is driven by long-term demographic shifts:

  • Decades of budget cuts in school districts have eliminated shop classes and other trade-oriented learning experiences that inspired students to pursue trades in the past.
  • The shortage of trade-focused education opportunities (compared to two-year and four-year colleges) has further limited the opportunity for young people to learn about career options in industries like construction.
  • In the absence of those opportunities, perceptions among young people have steadily intensified that traditionally blue-collar jobs are not a path to upwardly-mobile careers—a perception fueled by negative headlines about challenging labor issues in other industries like the automobiles and manufacturing.
  • The number of people with college degrees is rising each year, leading to a smaller and smaller percentage of the workforce that is actively considering career paths in traditionally “blue-collar” industries. In particular, the number of young people who are choosing the “working-in-an-office” path rather than a trade profession is at an all-time high.

To solve this labor crisis, the construction industry needs to take steps to expand its potential labor force in a dramatic way, by 1) reinventing our industry to be a far more attractive career choice to women, and 2) making a far stronger case for how construction careers have evolved. Both of those may seem at like intractable challenges at first, but I believe the changes are already underway to achieve both of those. Exciting new technologies are the key.

  • Tools like VR visualizers, 3D printing, and drone technology are already becoming common on construction projects—making digital skills increasingly important in our industry.
  • Wearable technologies like the HoloLens and Smart Helmet, combined with other worksite technologies, are having a significant impact on safety on jobsites
  • Exoskeletons are beginning to make their way into construction projects, allowing any worker to do what previously what could only be done by the strongest crew members. This technology will also play a critical role in preventing injuries and minimize wear and tear on human bodies, allowing workers to stay healthy and extend their careers.
  • Robotics systems are becoming more common, particularly in factor/prefab settings, allowing a single construction professional to perform work that previously required an entire crew.
  • Factory settings for pre-fabrication of building components are becoming commonplace in sectors of the construction industry like mine (data centers) and are proliferating across the industry. These factories provide a work environment that is far more family-friendly, making the industry more appealing to mothers and fathers alike.

These technologies are transforming the construction industry into a career path where creativity, fine motor skills, problem solving, and communications abilities are the key skills to have. Those technologies are also making the industry safer, more family-friendly, and more upwardly-mobile for educated workers. The construction industry is evolving so rapidly that it barely resembles what it looked like 10 year ago. If we want to solve this labor crisis—and become more profitable by using all of the best talent and innovators in our industry—we need to be bold in making construction a career that has the kind of work people want to do and the kind of environments they want to work in. We need to push hard for these technologies to become widely adopted as quickly as possible. Then we need to go out and make the case to women, children, and men why this is a career of the future, not the past. There’s a lot to be done. Let’s get to work!

Nancy Novak is one of the foremost experts in the world on the construction of data centers and mission critical facilities. She is the senior vice president of construction for Compass, www.compassdatacenters.com, Dallas, Texas, with more than 30 years of construction experience in the construction industry. She also serves as one of the cochairs for Constructech’s Technology Days 2019, www.constructech.com/tech-day/, where’s the issue of the labor shortage will be discussed in-depth.