The prospective scarcity of skilled labour driven by demographic shifts and the increasing sophistication of technology, which demands new and broader skillsets at all levels, coupled with the traditionally high volatility of workforce demand and composition, will be major tests.
Recent survey results confirm these fears. According to the US National Association of Homebuilders, 82 per cent of construction companies consider their main concern to be the shortage of construction workers. Sure enough, figures show that the average age of the workforce is rising faster than ever.
The UK Chartered Institute of Building reports that the set of workers over 60 is increasing faster, and the set under 30 is decreasing faster, than any other. In a construction industry survey conducted for the World Economic Forum, 77 per cent of respondents agreed that the industry is not doing enough to attract and retain talent.
Construction companies are often characterised by a conservative corporate culture and mindset. They are frequently hampered by organisational inertia. To support their overall business goals, the companies themselves need to drive organisational change. This is an iterative process, which requires careful alignment of a company’s culture and goals, its organisational design, and incentive schemes.
Traditionally, workforce management in construction was equivalent to living a boom-to-bust cycle as hiring and firing followed the general trend of the economy. Winning the war for talent, however, requires a fundamentally different and longer-term approach. The first step involves strategic workforce planning, thinking strategically about the company’s future demand in terms of quantity and quality of skills, and the likely availability of those skills to plan recruitment, retention and training systematically.
The concerns are not just about the quantity but also the quality of the future skilled workforce. The construction industry is undergoing a rapid digital transformation, through disruptive technologies such as building information modelling, wireless sensing, big data and analytics, 3D printing, and autonomous equipment, which requires radically different skillsets, and puts the industry in competition with technology companies for data scientists and IT experts.
By embracing innovation and new technologies, construction companies cannot only make themselves ready for the future, but can also meet the talent challenge. Increased automation, off-site prefabrication, new collaboration tools and suchlike advances will help to enhance productivity and wages as well as reduce the time spent on-site, two key wishes of respondents in the World Economic Forum industry survey.
Some innovations that are now standard in the automotive industry – exoskeletons, human-robot collaboration and ergonomic work processes – could benefit construction work too, making it less physically demanding and better suited to an ageing workforce.
The sector is well positioned to create a more appealing image, one of a dynamic and purpose-driven industry. In our survey, industry professionals proudly cited their beneficial impact on society, their contribution to national development, and their engagement with some of the serious modern challenges such as urbanisation and climate change.
Construction stakeholders should collaborate more in communicating this impact and should relay their fascinating stories more broadly by means of social media. Companies should start early, and go out to schools and universities to shape the image of the industry actively. To be successful in attracting the right talent, offering flexibility and a sufficient work-life balance will be essential.
The various actions will require a firm commitment from industry stakeholders and often a considerable financial investment too. As always, any investment should be based on a clear strategy and should be prepared carefully to pay off in the future. Failing to make a generous investment in talent would definitely be short-sighted. In the words of the renowned management consultant Peter Drucker: “Developing talent is business’s most important task – the sine qua non [essential condition] of competition in a knowledge economy.”