January 25, 2024
Across the globe, the construction industry is hitting a critical point. As seasoned workers in countries with post-World War II baby booms start retiring, there’s a noticeable gap left in their wake. The issue? Younger generations aren’t stepping in at the same rate.
This isn’t just a local problem; from the U.S. to Europe, and stretching to the Middle East and Asia, the demand for construction workers is outpacing supply. The Association of Builders and Contractors in the U.S. flagged the need for over half a million additional workers in 2023 alone, while Europe’s shortfall is hitting the millions.
This isn’t your typical construction scene anymore. Workers today are not just battling the elements outdoors; they’re at the forefront of a technological revolution in the industry. Think AI-driven insights, robotics in bricklaying and augmented reality for on-site planning. These advancements aren’t just changing how we build – they’re reshaping the skills needed on the ground.
Workers in construction are often exposed to the weather, said IEEE Member Gabriel Gomes de Oliveira. The work is hard, and the environment is often very different from that in industrial settings, where workers may sit in air-conditioned areas.
“With the application of technology, we’ll improve the service in terms of time, quality and cost,” Oliveira said.
The construction industry is looking to technology to fill the gap, and that will require workers with a whole new set of skills.
“Key for future work in this area will be understanding data gathering and analysis technologies and the best way to use these tools,” said 2024 IEEE President Tom Coughlin. “This includes knowledge on how to work with AI.”
How Technology is Changing Infrastructure Jobs
To understand how jobs in infrastructure are evolving, consider how technology may be used in the future. An article in the IEEE Journal of Industrial Informatics captures the scope of new developments.
Researchers have used artificial intelligence models to mine past knowledge on how different concrete recipes affect the quality of concrete and thus, the quality of buildings. The system shows that models could be used to train less experienced builders in the absence of highly skilled workers.
Robots might be used for a number of tasks, from physically laying bricks and concrete blocks, to carrying heavy loads.
Companies have already begun to use modular construction techniques, where portions of a project are constructed off site, allowing the construction industry to take advantage of advanced manufacturing techniques.
Augmented and virtual reality systems may be used to present digital plans superimposed on the real world, giving electricians, for example, wiring instructions they can visualize.
And finally, drones and autonomous vehicles are already being used to inspect infrastructure and construction sites.
Skills for a New Era
IEEE Fellow William Webb foresees growth in jobs dealing with drones for inspection of infrastructure and the management of sensor networks to collect data. Analysts will be in demand to make sense of a deluge of data. And infrastructure operators will need cybersecurity specialists to keep the system secure.
“The workforce will need the skills to be able to assess and make recommendations on infrastructure maintenance and updates based on data collected and analyzed by new technology systems,” Webb said. “Skills will also be needed to control and maintain the systems (drones, IoT and AI programs) used to monitor, collect and analyze data.”
Oliveira however, envisions a future in which people adopt digital skills through short, intensive training courses.
“Young people these days are born to use smartphones,” Oliviera said. “They already know how to use technology. The trend will be short-term, professional courses so a person knows specific areas such as 3D printing, sensors and systems or building information modeling (BIM) software.”
Learn More: Want to get an early start on preparing for a new generation of infrastructure jobs? Check out TryEngineering, powered by IEEE. TryEngineering aims to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals by empowering educators with lesson plans and projects.