Mittie Cannon, founder of an Alabama nonprofit construction training program for girls, knows that a job in the trades offers many perks: good pay, job satisfaction, the ability to work as part of a team and opportunities for advancement. But those incentives are not always enough to attract young women to the construction industry, which they see as dirty, tiring work that’s more appropriate for men.
Interactive technology is helping to change their minds. Through support from local businesses and ABC chapters, Cannon’s Power UP Loud program offers weekly workshops in middle schools focused on topics like plumbing, electrical and site work. In addition to traditional training, the girls experience the industry via simulators and VR headsets that mimic some of today’s most popular video games like Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console and the Sony PlayStation.
The young students — digital natives accustomed to using technology in nearly every facet of their lives — have a good time trying out simulators for activities like crane operation, excavation and welding, Cannon said, but the experience is more than just fun and games. By seeing firsthand that construction work involves high-tech skill more than physical prowess, some girls begin to envision it as career.
"Technology gets the kids excited," Cannon told Construction Dive. "It's something in a child’s mind that they can relate to."
Cannon is hoping that excitement will translate to future jobs for the girls, most of whom are in the eighth grade. "We relate technology to how the students can do this and make a great living," Cannon said. "When you tie it to a career it's definitely a selling point."
An eye-opening experience
Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Carrollton, Georgia-based Crane Industry Services, brings her firm's portable simulator machine to local college and career academies to help job seekers experience what it’s like to be a heavy equipment operator. The Vortex unit from CM Labs in Montreal, Canada, can be programmed with load movements that mimic different real-world scenarios.
"It's so eye-opening to them," she told Construction Dive. "They're like 'Oh my gosh I had no idea this is what it's like to operate a crane.'"
Women especially are surprised to find that operating a huge piece of equipment doesn't require exceptional strength, and many users like the fact that the experience is similar to popular video games, with a joystick and foot pedals, Dickinson said. "People who are comfortable with video games are very comfortable with the simulation technology," she said.
Construction companies are using the technology to not only attract but also evaluate candidates, Dickinson added. Simulators are helpful for checking out potential hires without tying up expensive equipment or supervisor time.
"You can see how expensive it would be to screen someone on a piece of crane equipment that costs anywhere from $30,000 to several million dollars," she said. "You can't let them loose by themselves without a certified operator, it would be too dangerous."
Her clients have used the Vortex to weed out unqualified applicants. "People show up who say 'I'm a certified operator with all this great experience,' but this helps to verify that somebody knows what they are talking about."
A recruitment tool
Construction companies across the U.S. are scrambling to attract young workers, and the lure of using technology can be a big draw. In a recent USG+US Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index of U.S. contractors, 32% cited the ability to work with advanced technology as a top way to attract new workers under 30.
Nevertheless, many job seekers don't associate the construction industry with the opportunity to work with technology, so forward-thinking firms are making it part of their recruiting and hiring process, said Chase Rozenberg, business manager of Philadephia-based recruiting firm Washington Frank.
"As a recruiter for technology workers, we're seeing firsthand how the industry's increased adoption of digital solutions has helped draw new talent to the sector," he said. "More and more companies, in a huge range of verticals, are seeing the benefit that digital transformation brings, both in terms of productivity and recruitment."
Beyond the jobsite, technology is a selling point for white-collar job candidates as well, said Mike Lorenzo, director of emerging technologies with AECOM Building Construction. Construction firms known for being tech-driven often have a leg up when recruiting highly trained workers.
"It definitely helps by bridging the gap within the industry because 10 to 15 years ago someone with a mechanical engineering or similar degree wouldn't have looked at a construction-related job because the industry was known as being so archaic," he said. "They're now seeing that there are a lot of innovative things happening in the construction industry and it's a good career. They see that the skills they can bring here are actually going to be utilized and not tossed aside."
Wendy Montgomery, senior talent manager at MEP provider Southland Industries, said industry leaders need to do more to promote the advantages of working in construction. While building construction may not be as "sexy" as the aviation or automotive industries, Montgomery said concepts like the importance of green technologies resonate with young job seekers.
"We have an opportunity to leverage their interest in tech by bringing up how our industry works to construct smart buildings," she said. "More and more, the skilled trades are requiring more complex, engineering-like skills so they can build better buildings with smaller environmental footprints."
At college recruiting fairs, students ask Southland representatives about the types of technology the company employs. They are especially interested in programs like Revit, Navisworks and virtual reality tools, she said.
"Lots of students now are being exposed much earlier to the types of technologies available in the industry," she said.
With U.S. unemployment at a record low, companies also use tech tools to keep current employees happy and engaged. Because high-tech systems make work more efficient they can help with employee retention, Lorenzo told Industry Dive.
"For people like foremen and superintendents it's about finding ways to make their jobs easier even if it's just giving them an iPad or a new program," he said. "People are demanding that kind of technology as something they need to do their job."
New products hit the market
Makers of construction and design software are tapping into the tech-based trend with products that borrow from top video game systems. For instance, Revizto's cloud-based software employs powerful gaming technology that converts BIM models into collaborative 3D environments. Buildfore's new CtrlWiz, a Navisworks app, allows users to navigate a BIM model with an Xbox controller.
Developed in partnership with Humanistic Robotics Network, Stanley's wireless Remote Operated Control System for excavators emulates the design of an Xbox controller. Features include dual joysticks, ergonomic buttons, status display and an emergency stop button.
Inspired by the 1990s 3D video game Doom, the ICE 3D application from DIRTT creates interactive interior environments in real time.
The programs are having a real-world impact. AECOM recently deployed Revizto on five major commercial high-rise projects in New York City, including 30 Hudson Yards, One Vanderbilt and One Manhattan West, Lorenzo said. The company's internal Future of Construction initiative will keep the innovations coming.
"In terms of the technology we use, we're at a different place now than we were 10 or 15 years ago, when there were one or two folks on a job that were assigned to be the 'tech guys' but nobody else had to know about it," he said. "We're investing the time and resources to make company-wide leaps to new types of technology every year."