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Opinion Piece

How to close digital skills gaps

Opinion piece by Rebecca De Cicco, Global Chair and Founder of Women in BIM, and Principal for Digital Enablement at Aurecon.

Digital impacts everything we do from the homes we live in to the roads we travel on and the places in which we work.

The construction industry is, and continues to, transform itself in ways unimaginable and we know that the digitalisation of the built environment will help us achieve greater results from the way we design, build and operate— maintaining and repurposing the assets all around us.

The rise of new technologies such as Digital Twins and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are converging the physical and digital worlds in the form of smart cities and connected assets, presenting huge opportunities for tackling pressing global challenges such as the climate crisis, productivity and rapid urbanisation.

A key challenge we still face as an industry is the lack of skill and capability to enable these activities. An increased ability and skill in delivering building information modelling (BIM) and digital engineering processes are just one part of how we can make this happen.

For over a decade now, Women in BIM (WIB) has worked to address and overcome skills-gap challenges, and to encourage diversity with a wider reach for women to excel within the built environment. Allowing women to achieve their career goals, to engage with other industry professional and learn, connect and grow. With the aim of bringing more women into our industry to provide these essential digital skills.

Although the UK economy is currently in decline and the threat of a recession on the horizon, the UK construction market is still booming with predicted growth of 4.4% by the end of 2023, reaching £163,253 million, with medium to long-term growth expected to continue with an increase of 3.9% from 2023 to 2027. As a result, according to the latest Construction Skills Network (CSN) report we will need a further 225,000 new construction workers by 2027!

Many of these workers will need digital skills, therefore businesses that do not prioritise digital skills in the recruitment process now will struggle to keep up with digital initiatives in the future. Investing in people and new technologies is needed now.

Industry leading organisations should investigate ideas around the future of the skills requirement and the way we work, to enable productivity and greater efficiencies. Although many organisations are beginning to do just this, there is still a resistance when it comes to the adoption of new technology and processes to allow organisations (large and small) to grow.

It is a critical issue in our industry that only 42% of employees take up any opportunity to reskill or upskill in their roles, only further highlighting the resistance to enable change across the built environment. We need industry leaders to reverse this thinking and encourage change.

At present there are still considerable challenges in finding skilled employees in digital construction and digital engineering but even more so across a range of new, emerging roles in our industry. Organisations are consistently citing difficulties when hiring or finding the right talent and many are resorting to extreme measures to retain people with these skills.

In addition to the concerns relating to the way we adopt new technologies, there should also be an understanding internally within our organisations as to what skills are required. This type of data can be used as a framework for how organisations develop a data driven approach to skills measurement and upskilling which is now somewhat unfamiliar in the context of the construction industry.

Emerging roles are beginning to populate the construction industry, such as Data Analysts and Scientists, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists as well as Software and Application Developers. As you can imagine, skills in these relatively new areas are even harder to source. While an exact skills match is not a prerequisite to making a job transition or even being employed, the long-term productivity of employees is determined by their skill of key competencies in these areas, all of which are very difficult to procure.

Many organisations are beginning to invest more heavily in innovative processes and techniques yet it is not currently mainstream in the construction sector. Much of the research suggests that new technologies are set to drive growth across industries, as well as to increase the demand for new job roles and skill sets. Such positive effects may be counter-balanced by workforce disruptions. A substantial amount of concern exists about how technological adoption could impact workers’ jobs by replacing some tasks performed by humans into the realm of work performed by machines – a hot topic at preset with the increasing capabilities of AI and the still relatively new ChatGPT. But that’s a whole other debate!

The extent of disruption will vary depending on a worker’s occupation and skill set. There is already a strong focus across large scale advisory organisations on automation, focusing on enabling menial tasks to be completed using automated techniques, and focusing on humans for the scope of leadership and innovation roles.

Whilst there may not be a quick-fix we do need to act fast to close the gap in our digital construction skills shortages.

And the outlook is positive, employers have the opportunity to upskill their workforce and in doing so they retain vital team members. Also, with the increase of apprenticeship schemes, many opportunities present themselves in bringing in new people to our teams who are eager to learn.

While digital appears to be the answer to most questions in the construction industry right now, we need to fuel technology and digital ways of working through the capabilities of our people. We need to have a positive cultural change for reskilling and upskilling to ensure our industry continues to grow and evolve in the direction it is needed.

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