The rise of automation in the construction industry could lead to a widening skills gap, a leading consultant has warned.

Arcadis UK director of workforce for the future Lara Potter said the built environment needs a new culture of upskilling to deal with the anticipated changes that automation could bring to the sector.

Speaking at the Construction News Summit last week, Potter referred to a study from the RSA (the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which said that as much as 50 per cent of some construction activities could potentially be automated.

The study compared data from the HMRC on the take-up of furlough in 2020 to the ONS data on the probability of automation in construction.

Potter said: “In construction as we know, there was a significant uptake for furlough in 2020. And it’s also estimated that as much as 50 per cent for some construction activity is automatable. The suggestion here is that furlough is a good indicator of the automation potential.”

The Arcadis director cited the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report and said the construction industry must consider reskilling to cope with the adoption of technology. According to the report, critical thinking and problem solving has emerged as the most valuable skills for any future workforce.

Potter said that work on site could, in future, could be done by one person, with access to plumbing, electrical and other expertise handled remotely.

“If a surgeon can perform an operation remotely, or at least guide someone else to perform an operation remotely, why not apply a similar thinking to the trades and the professions in the built environment sector?” Potter asked.

She also brought up the issue of the rising vacancies in construction, which are going hand in hand with the pace of automation.

She said: “The quarterly percentage vacancy growth between April and June this year was about 4.5 percent. This all points to an absolutely enormous gap between supply and demand and capacity and standardisation and automation accelerates, which we’re pretty certain it will, we also have an increasing skills gap.

“Our workforce will become more diverse. All of our organisations will be looking for people with different backgrounds, with different ways of thinking to solve problems.”

Among delegates at Wednesday’s Summit was Marian Palmieri-Torres, a student software engineer at Tony Gee & Partners LLP, who is employed to help apply principles of programming to processes in the construction industry.

Torres took the example of a bridge building to demonstrate how programming can help the construction industry.

She explained that any bridge has the same process, with different numbers or different dimensions.

“So what an automation could achieve is, you create an app, you then get the user to input the data. And then it will generate the bridge within minutes, reducing the need a CAD technician or an engineer to spend five days organising it, building it, drawing it in card and then sending it off to the contractor,” said Torres.

She added: “The app may take two weeks of my time, but then overall, it may save the business lots and lots of time and lots and lots of money. And then that means that we can focus on other projects that are more important.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *