IT skills in construction: can software plug the gap?

For years, industry leaders have been proclaiming a serious issue in the construction industry: a construction skills shortage. It has even threatened some of the Government’s most important and ambitious projects. The recent whitepaper ‘Planning for the Future 2020’ reaffirmed the Government’s ambition to build 300,000 new homes a year to house the 73 million projected to live in the UK in 2035. This plan, originally launched in 2017, isn’t without its critics. The Royal Town Planning Group (RTPG) criticises the plans, stating that there simply isn’t enough viable land in some areas and that the project further pushes construction bias into the South. A recent PBC Today article highlights concerns around the pressure on green belt land and notes that applications are already reaching 460,000 in these areas.

This housing target sits alongside several other high profile projects such as Crossrail, Hinckley Point C and the Heathrow expansion. Whatever your views on the Government’s plans, one question is being repeated over and over again: where will we find the skilled workforce to complete these huge tasks?

Facing the construction skills shortage

Construction workers training in IT skills

The construction skills shortage is well documented and yet it shows little sign of abating. A CIOB survey in 2019 found that over 20% of businesses have severe difficulty in recruiting construction and building trade supervisors and over 15% have severe difficulty in recruiting quantity surveyors, project managers and related professionals. In a recent trade survey by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) in the same year, 64% of companies stated that they struggling to hire bricklayers and 59% were struggling to employ carpenters/joiners.

The construction skills shortage seems to be multi-faceted and complex but there are clear risk areas that are driving some of the problems. The RICS ‘Upping the ante on skills’ paper released in 2017 stated that 430,000 skilled workers were set to retire between 2010 and 2020 and that an effective way to foster a new generation of skilled workers would be to develop more responsive workforce development programmes.

The Government has begun to address construction skills training with its apprenticeship schemes and, more recently, with the introduction of T-levels. T-levels should provide a clearer route into many more practical-based professions. They aim to develop parity between the technical and academic studies needed for entry into these careers. One of the aims is surely to elevate the status of construction as a profession, transforming it into a career of choice for more people.

IT skills in construction are a key focus

Amongst these 15 new qualifications, one of the first to be launched is the Building Services Engineering for Construction course. A notable inclusion in this construction skills training qualification is the focus on technology and its use within this space. Three core models included are:

  • Data management and information standards in construction
  • How the Internet of Things impacts construction
  • Digital engineering techniques

The focus on data, IT and technology is something that has long been lacking in formal construction skills training and hints at another problem: IT skills in construction.

The prioritisation of the Building Services Engineering for Construction T level is a welcome change in this industry where there have been delays in the roll-out of other technology-focused training, including BIM technical training. Although BIM level 2 was mandated for use in Government buildings in 2016, formal training still isn’t available. That said, CITB-accredited, formal training in construction technology and drone technology is now available.

BIM drives IT skills in construction

It’s fair to say that the BIM level 2 mandate has been a major driving force for the adoption of technology in the construction space. In 2016, BIM level 2 technology became mandatory for Government projects and this change brought many benefits. Through widespread adoption, BIM is saving time and money on construction sites. In fact, a report by PwC in 2017 stated that the Government saved between two to three per cent on whole life expenditure for construction that followed BIM processes.

BIM certainly isn’t the only technology with the power to transform the construction site. Many innovative technologies exist with the ability to solve the serious issues facing the industry. Virtual and augmented reality, drone technology, project management tools and digital documentation software are all gaining traction on the construction site and with management and support teams in the office.

So, how important are IT skills in construction and how formal should training be?

We welcomed the approach taken in the CITB’s report on Unlocking Construction’s Digital Future where the focus was placed firmly on the softer skills that are important in evaluating and choosing digital technology. The construction industry needs to know how to use technology but, more importantly, when and when not to use it.

For digital technology to be effective, it must be embedded within an organisation. It must also help the business to solve key problems. Technology that cannot meet these criteria will detract from the business goals and potentially create more issues than it solves.

Technology is a fast-evolving and ever-changing space – just look at the advances in mobile phone technology in recent years. Formal education on particular technologies often becomes out-of-date as soon as the course is over. However, it’s critical to teach the softer skills needed to evaluate technology and embed it within an organisation. Skills such as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork are especially important.

Technology companies must bridge the IT skills gap

With the challenges faced in creating formal education for construction technology and the subsequent IT skills shortage in this sector, how can software companies fill this gap? We need digital technology in order to progress the industry, to access greater efficiencies and reach new standards of quality and safety. But how can this happen when the IT skills in construction are lacking?

The first thing to make clear is that technology is just another tool in the construction toolbox. As with any tool, its purpose is to make a job easier. Complicated interfaces and software that requires in house experts and huge structural changes struggle to become embedded in day-to-day operations.

Yes, construction companies need the right people with the right skills to evaluate technology and choose the right software to meet their needs and goals. However, in-depth IT skills shouldn’t be a requirement for operating the systems used for day-to-day tasks on site.

Software should be easily accessible and simple to use, only then will it be adopted and championed by teams. Only then will businesses achieve a return on investment.

PlanRadar – mobile-first documentation and defect management software

PlanRadar has accessibility and ease-of-use at the core of its design. The digital documentation and communication tool provides a single-source-of-truth for all construction data. Data ranges from detailed blueprints and BIM models to defect management, inspections and audits. PlanRadar is easily accessible through an app on a standard smartphone.

The key to PlanRadar’s appeal is its collaborative workspace. Any user can raise a ticket or carry out an inspection, pinning the task to its location on the plan. Supervisors can also assign tasks and take a dashboard view of all outstanding jobs, snags, audit and issues.

Even third-party contractors can access the app through their smartphone and view their allocated tasks. They can add all the necessary images, documentation and instructions to each task to demonstrate that they’ve completed it. No more paper trails, duplicated information or miscommunication.

Most importantly, you don’t need any detailed training for team members to start using PlanRadar. The straightforward interface means that if users can use social media, they will also be able to use PlanRadar. The key premise behind PlanRadar was that it should be accessible to everyone. It should also easily integrate with existing workflows and procedures and not create more work through complicated processes.

Don’t take our word for it. Try PlanRadar today for 30 days free.