27 June, 2023 - Modulex Modular Buildings
What About the Workers?…Millennial Construction is still People Powered
We’ve talked a lot recently about the social and economic significance of global construction technologies, particularly about the crucial dynamic between stuck in the mud, dinosaur construction (which doesn’t work), and new wave modular systems (which do). But, to adopt a clarion call from the dimly lit, black-and-white days of the nineteen seventies: what about the workers? All those cutting-edge technologies powering modular construction are splendid in their shiny way, but you still need men (and women) with hammers, drills, and crash hats to put the final building together. So, just for this week, let’s focus a little more on our new-age construction workers and give the chips and algorithms some time off…not least because the people part of construction raises some fascinating issues of its own.
There is, for example, currently a major (but largely unexamined) fault line between construction demographics in developed and emerging economies.
The View from the West
In developed economies (let’s call them “the West” to save my fingers)…in the West, construction has been racing against a ticking demographic timebomb for at least the last thirty-five years: and now, it seems, the cliff edge is finally in plain sight (www.makeuk.org). All those workers who grew up in dinosaur construction are ageing and dwindling in number, and with each new shock that hits the sector (lord knows we’ve had a few since the 1990s), more and more of them are leaving the mud and bricks behind: never to return. Site-specific skills (like shuttering, carpentry, and steelworking) are gradually being lost, and, on the supply side, there aren’t enough hammer-wielding youngsters coming in to take their place …
Informed commentators predict that a further 950,000 construction workers will have to be added to the labour force in the UK alone to keep up with current delivery targets through to 2030. Still, there’s no chance of that happening: the numbers don’t stack up. And that’s undoubtedly one reason why the UK Government has decided to abandon any semblance of a target for creating new, affordable housing. There isn’t anything like the number of workers needed to turn dwindling levels of ambition into boots-on-the-ground action.
And we’re not just talking about the UK here: that same demographic timebomb is also a live issue in virtually every Western economy, from the United States to Germany and Poland and all points in between.
At the best of times, all this would be a major problem. Still, it’s especially problematic at the moment given the global shortfall in housing supply, which has just hit a forty-year high: and set starkly against that gaping deficit, 150 Million of our fellow citizens are currently either homeless or in dire housing need worldwide (www.worldpopulationreview.com), who’s going to build them a home…a new affordable home?
A New Construction Paradigm
Well, the good news is that Modular Construction has that angle covered, too, because its core technologies draw naturally on a much wider talent pool than just the horny-handed sons of toil who spent their working lives wading about in the mud (not that they wanted to…most would have preferred to be inside, out of the rain). In stark contrast, Modular systems adopt emerging technologies on a full life cycle basis to design and oversee pre-fabrication and final assembly of the units that will make up the finished building (including AI, 3D Design and Machine Learning), so the relevant projects are much more likely to call for someone who can work a computer, manage or operate an automated production line, and deal with complex delivery logistics…none of them needing any familiarity with mud, and, as a big plus, there are plenty of them around in our tech-friendly times.
On the average Modular project, less than 20% of the labour force is trained in a conventional construction skill, and up to 65% come from a manufacturing background. Additionally, the Modular process is way more efficient than traditional technologies…with fewer workers required in absolute terms to achieve the same output (50% less, to be precise)…So, at a stroke, the looming labour crisis in construction is sidestepped: the cliff face averted.
That’s one of the reasons why Modular business platforms currently account for more than a third of all R&D spending in the construction sector: it simply makes better business sense to focus on the future.
If you want to understand the dynamics of any rapidly changing industrial sector, you could do worse than start with the technology driving it. But when it comes to construction, it’s wise to look at the part people play too…