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Why virtual experience can help plug skills gaps

It sometimes feels like we’ve been talking about construction skills shortages forever.

And with major schemes like High Speed 2 and Hinkley Point C looming, alongside a drive to deliver thousands of new homes, the crisis appears to be deepening.

Training and apprenticeships will only provide part of the answer. For progressive construction companies willing to invest in and adopt new technology, however, the application of advanced digital innovations could provide the key to plugging the remaining skills gap.

Since the financial crisis in 2008, construction employs around 324,000 fewer workers. While both colleges and employers are now trying to address this shortfall, recruiting and training the estimated 182,000 new workers needed by 2018 seems a very tall order indeed. In addition, millennials that have grown up surrounded by technology are less than enthusiastic about a sector perceived as still low tech and physically demanding.

Shifting perceptions

There is a huge job to do in changing those perceptions – a job that starts with a more creative approach to integrating technology into construction processes and adopting new ways of working. The problem is exacerbated by what’s happening at the opposite end of the career cycle.

Construction not only needs core site skills but also knowledge and experience across project management, QS, site management and specialist trades. Much of that expertise in the UK is coming up to retirement age and, with years until today’s new recruits boast similar experience, there is a looming knowledge gap across all levels.

Technology can extend career longevity – something that can also help the construction sector as a whole.

“It may seem like a space-age vision for another century, but with manufacturing and logistics sectors already using robotics and VR maturing in the gaming sector, this approach is accessible now”

ISG is already using apps: a visualisation tool that aids the design development and value-engineering processes, and a site management app with real-time logging of snagging issues and resolution during the build phase – and the firm is fully BIM-enabled.

There’s another layer of technology on which we can build new ways of working, however, and that future is closer than many might think.

VR expertise

While teenagers are using virtual reality to experience landing on the moon or riding on rollercoasters, VR has massive potential for construction. Not only will it enable workers to carry out more hazardous jobs using a combination of VR and robotics, the same combination will also enable us to continue harnessing the experience of more mature professionals without requiring them to attend site or carry out physically demanding tasks.

It may seem like a space-age vision for another century, but with manufacturing and logistics sectors already using robotics and VR maturing in the gaming sector, this approach is accessible now.

The progressive nature of other industries, such as the manufacturing sector, which are embracing new ideologies like ‘Industry 4.0’, is a call to action for construction to wake up and embrace change.

Our own approach has taken a cultural shift that starts with the people we employ and the integration of technology with construction processes and skills.

This is the first transformational step of many to achieve changes for the sector, making a genuine, sustainable contribution to narrowing the skills and productivity gap.

Jack Dearlove is BIM strategy manager at ISG and a member of the CN Next Gen Club

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