Teaching the essential skills that new construction workers will need is being touched by advanced digital technologies, Dave Howell reports.

A new report from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) illustrates how using digital learning tools is now necessary to train the next generation of construction workers.

Steve Radley, CITB Director of Policy, said: “Immersive learning has huge potential. It can enhance construction’s appeal to a generation raised on gaming and virtual environments. It will also enable construction to compete with other sectors, such as engineering, which young people often view as an appealing industry because of its use of technology.”

The use of digital technologies has of course been growing right across the construction sector, from portable digital communications devices such as smartphones and tablets to more exotic technologies including Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Wearable devices and the burgeoning use of artificial intelligence (AI) with Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems are now linked to the expanding use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. Digital technology is here to stay as an essential component of today’s construction landscape.

“Immersive learning has the potential to completely revolutionise training delivery, changing the entire landscape of workplaces like never before,” commented SM Lodha, Chairman of the British engineering firm Western Thermal. “The VR training market has been on a rapid rise in recent years and will no doubt become critical to the industry in the near future.”

Lodha continued: “As construction is a high-risk environment, tools such as VR will help ease the pressure and provide experiences that will be much safer and efficient, allowing for more time and effort to go into the training, to ensure each worker is prepared for any scenario and equipped with the correct skillset. They can simulate real-life situations, reduce operational costs, increase engagement in workers as simulations create a hands-on learning experience, and it can provide detailed analytics for the employer to utilise.”

Initiatives such as the Construction Manager game developed as a joint venture between the CITB and Investment Strategy with various partners and projects, including Learn Direct and Build, illustrates the ideas behind the gamification of training can be highly effective.

Stephen Good, Chief Executive Officer of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), said: “One of the biggest threats to construction is the risk that the next generation of talent doesn’t view this industry as an attractive destination of choice.

“If we don’t offer an innovative, diverse, digitally-connected proposition that inspires our future workforce and engages them around the diverse range of roles available, other industries will. Construction Manager uses gaming as a tool to do just that, changing perceptions and opening minds to a career in this rapidly transforming industry, Good concluded.”

New ways to teach

Croner-i Construction spoke with Kathryn Lennon Johnson, founder of Built Environment Skills in Schools (BESS).

How are digital technologies changing how construction skills are now being taught?

“Virtual reality is a fantastic way of teaching hands-on construction skills to young people. It gives them a fully immersive experience of trying out different methods and skills without the dangers of being on site. Games are also an effective way to reach children at a young age too. Think about the popularity of City Builder games such as Cities Skylines — these help children learn about different materials, create buildings and objects from their imagination, as well as different ways to problem solve using 3D objects.

“But technology doesn’t just have to cover VR and games. During BESS’ Construction Careers Weeks, which took place in Manchester, Birmingham and London this September and October, we worked with businesses to help inspire and inform students and apprentices to consider a career in construction using a whole range of different teaching methods — including digital broadcasts.

“In an ideal world, we’d love to get young people out onto construction sites and exploring different built environments, but in some situations, this just isn’t viable or safe. So, we invite businesses to use technology that most of us have at our disposable — smartphones, digital cameras, social media and streaming services — to broadcast from different sites. We’ve even had a camera from the top of a crane to show children what it’s like working from such a height.

“The really important aspect that the industry must not ignore, however, is that games and technology are all well and good as inspirational hooks, but they must be linked clearly and obviously to the school curriculum and to careers.”

How does immersive learning using tools such as VR offer a whole new learning experience that delivers better-trained construction professionals?

“I don't think immersive learning offers a whole new experience. It's more of a case that this method gives young people a chance to experiment, explore and make mistakes, as well as questioning their decisions after the fact.

“Technology offers new possibilities when it comes to construction training. It can allow young people to try a range of activities in different situations without the health and safety implications, and it can allow construction workers to experiment and practice without the costs and risks if it goes wrong.

“Also, technology can also let us reach more people across a greater geographic area too. Yes, there are some upfront costs associated with using technology — but there are some innovative businesses doing some remarkable things with tech and it’s possible for construction businesses and training organisations to team up with third parties to offer more training through technology. And as our Construction Careers Weeks show, you don’t have to spend loads on new technology — you can use the technology you already have in a creative and impactful way.”

Learning skills in a virtual environment are all well and good, but is there a disconnect between the virtual learning and how these skills are actually applied in the real tactile world of a live construction site?

“It’s important to remember that technology isn't simply about new ways of learning the building process. It also gives young people the opportunity to understand urban planning, traffic flows, acoustic effects, environmental impacts, data sharing, materials management and so much more that ultimately, helps us create a better-built environment for clients and end users.

“One of the benefits of using technology and a virtual environment for training is that it lets us engage with students from a much younger age. The industry is facing a huge skills gap and if we’re not careful, we’ll soon see a huge halt in much-needed construction activity. Children very quickly from a young age decide what jobs they can and can’t do — and these thoughts are often imposed on them from the world around them.

“Unfortunately, this means we still see a lot of girls thinking that a career in construction isn’t for them, as well as people from minority backgrounds. But we need to make the sector more diverse and inclusive. The sooner we can reach young people, engage with them using technology and games so they can see the different career paths in construction and get excited about the built environment, the better.

“One of the reasons that young people are inspired to work in tech-related businesses is because they can see this vision, the opportunity to create new, exciting, different things. Selling jobs in construction that haven't changed since their grandfathers were on site, isn't a compelling message to today's young people. They don't just understand technology, it's how they live their lives.”

Which areas of training need urgent improvement if we are to have a highly skilled construction workforce in the future?

“We need to change the way we promote construction careers, as well as how we’re providing training. The construction jobs of the future are much more varied and different compared to the traditional careers in this sector. For example, who could image 10 years ago that you could get a job as a drone operator?

“And even the role of an architect has changed dramatically thanks to the use of technology, including BIM and virtual reality. As well as using technology to inform and inspire the next generation of construction workers, we need to educate young people, their parents and teachers about the vastly varied jobs that are and will be available thanks to the developments in technology.

“The industry must collaborate across all disciplines and specialisms to ensure that training is holistic. To create the workforce of the future, we, of course, need technical skills, but we also need people who make better choices. This involves a fundamental culture shift in the industry towards data and idea sharing, as well as encouraging cross-discipline skills.”

What does the future of construction training look like?

“I hope the future of construction training sees more young people from primary school and upwards get taught about the industry. By the time they finish school or start college, it’s too late for many of them to start thinking about a career in the sector. Construction is such an exciting industry, and technology — whether for training or how we do things — is playing such a big role in this. We need to get young people excited about the possibilities and understand the huge impact the built environment has on our day-to-day lives, communities, society and the environment.

“The training also has to think more broadly than technical skills. We need to create smart future citizens and smart future clients who understand the impacts and consequences of the built environment. Our training needs to incorporate learning from the social sciences too.”

Construction as an industry will continue to explore and deploy digital technologies on site, and in the design and planning stages. What is also clear is teaching and training will also become increasingly digitised. It’s very early in the development of these technologies and their application to construction training. No standards or accreditations yet exist. These will, though, rapidly develop as construction and the training sector as a whole develops these courses.

Recruiting new construction professionals

Using new technologies such as AR and VR is not a panacea for the issues that face the construction industry as it recruits the next generation of workers.

Young people need to be engaged with the jobs and careers available across the construction industry early in their education.

Race and gender barriers are coming down, but more needs to be done in order to make jobs in the construction industry more inclusive.

Technology can be used to connect with people who are digital natives. Using gamification is a great way to speak their language and educate them about careers in construction.

Last reviewed 15 January 2019