It is no secret that, due to demographic change, there is an acute shortage of skilled workers. The construction industry is becoming increasingly affected—everything from delayed projects to the non-acceptance of orders is a cause for concern.

But what can be done if the next generation cannot supplant the retiring skilled veteran workers? What will happen to the quality of construction work? The digitisation of construction processes certainly represents a promising solution.

Senior architect using smart phone.

Construction site veterans

When it comes to the age gap, there are divergences between all the professions that make up the construction industry. Things have changed since the 1991 census, where the UK recorded the highest percentage of young construction workers, with 43% between the ages of 16 and 34.

The figures dropped to 33% as of the 2001 census and have faced a steady decline since then. The construction industry is one of the industries feeling the weight of this decline in the percentage of younger workers.

Presently, the industry has an ageing workforce, with the number of workers above 60 increasing rapidly, beyond any other age group. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that as of 2011, one in every five UK-born construction workers was above 55 and expected to have retired by 2021.

A recent survey shows that 64.8% of construction workers above 60 understood the challenges that may arise as an effect of the increase in the construction industry’s ageing population. It is to some of these challenges that we now turn.

Challenges Facing Older Construction Workers

As the UK’s workforce ages, certain obstacles stand in the way of older workers, some of which include the following:

1. Heightened Risk of Injury

Older workers are at more risk of receiving career-ending injuries in work-related accidents than younger workers. These injuries may be more challenging to recover from at an older age. Years of demanding and strenuous activities take their toll on this demographic of workers, and the more they work, their likelihood of getting injured increases. Whether it’s a slow decline of strength in jobs that require heavy-lifting or the impact of working with heavy machinery over decades, older workers face challenges that younger workers can avoid just by generally being more physically resilient.

Minor injuries like simple sprains typically take more time to recover from and cost employers more.

2. Age Discrimination

The construction industry is one that has historically been driven by the vibrancy and vigour of youth. Particularly in the trades, workers are expected to be quick, strong and physically able. As workers age, they may experience workplace discrimination because of their age. This discrimination takes many forms, like differences in hiring, layoffs, promotions, and feelings of inferiority.

That being said, age should not be a barrier to workers’ contribution to the construction industry. It behoves employers to understand how age affects capacity and work output and set up organisational structures to adapt the workplace to meet the different needs of its ageing workforce.

Companies should consider an age management approach, matching jobs to individual capacities, and offer continuous career development so workers can plan ahead for the later stages of their career.

3. Training and Skill Development

Older workers are often faced with the challenge of improving their skillset to meet the requirements of modern construction. This set of skills may stand in the way of getting much-desired promotions or new gigs.

However, learning new skills at an advanced age may be daunting for workers in this demographic, hindering their upward mobility in the workplace or ability to get a new job. Older workers who find it hard to pick up new relevant skills may face extended periods of unemployment, forcing them to leave the labour force altogether. Companies should therefore consider the training they offer, making sure that older workers have as much access to career development opportunities as younger workers.

4. Working With Debilitating Health Conditions

As workers grow older, there is every chance that they may have a work-limiting health condition or even a disability from their long years in employment. These conditions can prevent older workers from fully participating in the workplace, impacting their earning capacity.

Certain limitations can stand in the way of older workers fully participating in work, even if their health condition is not obvious. These include inaccessible work locations or equipment that they can no longer use comfortably. Accommodations can help, but these would need to be put in place on a case-by-case basis, something that might challenge an employer.

5. Caring for Family While Working

All demographics of workers find it difficult to balance work with caring for their families, but it’s often a challenge older workers have to deal with the most. Older workers have to continue working and earning enough money to remain financially secure and still care for their dependents – particularly if they have aging parents or spouses that might need extra support.

These challenges can require a person to take substantial amount of time off work in order to be a caregiver. They might even find that full-time work isn’t compatible with the amount of care they need to provide. However, giving up work can reduce their income and access to employee benefits like health care coverage and pension benefits.

Organisations that can allow for flexibility, or that can support an employee’s transition to part-time work or a less demanding role, even temporarily, can make it easier for older employees to stay a productive and valued part of the team.

How Companies Can Upskill Older Workers

The increasing number of retiring skilled workers and scarcity of skilled younger workers contribute to the construction skill gap. Here are a few ways to upskill older workers to match modern construction demands:

  • Track the ages of team members to spot those older than the average age for their position.
  • Tailor learning experiences to meet their specific needs, whether leadership training or skill advancement.
  • Establish mentorship roles to fill existing skill and knowledge gaps, with each end of the divide benefiting from each other.
  • Create flexible working patterns that allow older workers to take on fewer hours and more consultancy-style roles instead of fieldwork.

Consequences of the Aging Construction Workforce

The consequences of these developments are becoming increasingly apparent. According to the Office of National Statistics, employment in the construction industry fell from 2.3 million to 2.1 million between 2017 and 2020. Many companies in the construction sector bemoan a shortage of skilled workers since BREXIT and the COVID-19 lockdown.

Since vacancies can no longer be filled by qualified staff, the available employees are heavily burdened, which is detrimental to the working atmosphere and efficiency. This overburdening of workers also negatively affect other aspects of the workforce, such as occupational safety on the construction site.

The consequences of this trend are also reflected in the economy. If there is a shortage of manpower, less work can be done, resulting in less revenue for the companies, workers, and the government (in the form of taxes). In more and more cases, orders from construction companies are no longer accepted due to a lack of capacity.

This, in turn, contributes to an increase in construction project prices. With the older generation’s retirement, not only urgently needed labour but valuable expertise is lost. Thus, young and well-trained staff is highly sought after and expensive.

Since the shortage of skilled workers affects not just the construction industry but almost all sectors and industries, companies are competing for the upcoming generation of labourers. In this situation, big corporations in urban regions have the upper hand.

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Fertile ground

In times of need, companies offer various incentives: brand new smartphones or company cars to win young craftsmen over and persuade them to start a career in the construction industry. Other methods try to increase the attractiveness of construction work, including moving the company offices to more attractive locations.

These moves are typically calculated and can include other perks, including healthcare and accommodation for the prospective employee’s family. Companies often offer childcare services or something close to full-day schools, which makes these companies more attractive to potential new hires, especially in rural regions. More long-term recruitment concepts use education and training as leverage.

Various programs are designed to help young people without sufficient qualifications and help dropout students or immigrants obtain an apprenticeship. These measures are effective, often resulting in an increased number of apprentices in the country.

For most, such training is worthwhile. The average life income of a craftsman is comparable to that of college graduates. As a young craftsman, anyone who puts a lot of effort into this will benefit from the demographic change. In the same vein, as more and more entrepreneurs retire, many successful companies are looking for successors in attractive management positions.

The Benefits of Digitization

Another way to offset some of the impacts of the demographic change in the construction industry is to advance the level of digitisation. When processes are optimised or automated, resources can be better channelled to other areas of urgent need.

Experienced 50+ staff members do not have to spend so much time on routine tasks but can instead apply their expertise to more important tasks. A great example is the documentation of construction defects or taking up consultancy roles, as we discussed earlier.

Every practitioner knows that mistakes cannot be completely avoided in any construction project, even if they exercise the utmost care. An error detected during a site inspection should be properly documented with analogue—pen and paper—or digital devices for further processing.

While analogue data storage is common, it’s easier to transfer, process, and duplicate digital data such as excel files. This is essential to ensure that such data and processed information are available for new workers to step up their game.

More so, analogue documentation is more laborious, expensive, and exhausting than its digital counterpart. For instance, working with software solutions like PlanRadar on construction projects proves to be a lot easier than paper alternatives.

Focus on a table full of blueprints, in background blurred scaffolding, men in shirt and tie and work helmet and construction workers.

Gapless documentation

Companies worldwide use PlanRadar for various tasks, including defect management, construction documentation, reporting, acceptance, inventories, evidence, due diligence, certifications, and task assignment.

The app is available for all Android, iOS, and Windows mobile devices—from smartphones to tablets. Some of the benefits of the app are as follows:

  • Construction errors, open assignments, or other tasks are recorded as tickets on digital construction or architectural plans. The information on each issue may be stored as text, voice memo, and picture, as desired or required. This saves an average of 7 working hours per week.
  • New blueprints or the revisions of existing plans can be uploaded with just a few taps as a PDF or JPG file—this makes uncomplicated plan management possible.
  • After creating a new ticket or adding information to an existing one, the software immediately notifies all responsible project participants. Only those users whom the project manager has granted the appropriate rights are given access.
  • Total transparency and traceability of any communication between all involved project members. A chronological history of past services can also be called upon and reproduced, in a few clicks, even years later.
  • Instead of using instant messaging services like WhatsApp, PlanRadar helps to store all data securely in the cloud according to the Data Protection Act provisions. PlanRadar’s storage method ensures that data cannot be lost and allow users to access them easily using filter tools.
  • All information can be easily summarised in logs and sent as a PDF or Excel file to third parties. Thus, for example, a publicly appointed and sworn technical expert can understand facts faster.
  • From apprentice to site manager, the software’s handling is intuitive and easy to learn. Even laypersons can create projects within a few minutes and without any previous training.

These are only some of the advantages that convince customers around the globe to use PlanRadar. Around 20,000 users from 43 countries and all the construction & real estate sectors use the app for communication and the documentation of their projects. Also, an average of 25,000 projects are completed weekly with the help of PlanRadar.