Can technology solve the construction skills shortage?

With Brexit looming on the horizon, warnings are coming thick and fast over the UK's ability to meet demand for housing.

Recent figures suggested that Britain needs to employ an additional 400,000 workers per year to build enough homes and infrastructure, regardless of any fallout from the EU referendum.

This was followed by claims that UK construction could lose almost 200,000 EU workers should the country lose access to the single market.  

And although some firms have urged workers to embrace technology in order make the sector more appealing to young people, just 5% of property businesses consider themselves to be technologically advanced.

According to James Dearsley, steering committee member of the UK Proptech Association and proptech expert, some developers have already attempted to utilise technology to revolutionise the building process.

“Just recently a Russian experiment to 3D print a property was a revelation,” explained James.

Could 3D printing be used for housebuilding?

“It built a house, in a harsh Russian winter, in a little under 24 hours and a little over $10,000.

“Would you have wanted to live there? Not really.”

‘The human touch is still essential’

Although the construction sector may not be ready to become fully reliant on automated processes and machinery, James suggested that gently integrating technology with human expertise could be key to future developments.

“There is no doubt technological innovation is changing the way we build houses, but the human touch is still essential.

“Modular build, or off-site construction, is one that is growing in interest and perhaps more likely in the short term than 3D printing.

“There is a great combination of a human element but the reliability of being build off-site in the best conditions.”

Another form of technology with the potential to revolutionise the construction sector is building information modelling, which provides a digital representation of a development to enable greater testing, analysis and decision making.

Ben Lever, future skills delivery manager at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), believed this technology – combined with the benefits of off-site construction – would allow for speedier delivery of new housing.

“This not only allows homes to be built more quickly, but for those homes to be higher quality and more energy efficient.”

Building information modelling could speed up the construction and management of properties

‘The building industry isn’t sexy enough’

However, Ashley Ilsen, head of lending and CMO at Regentsmead, insisted that not every developer would have the means to take advantage of such technological advances.

“There are many apprenticeship schemes out there that attract young individuals into learning about various skills that are useful going forward, however, the building industry isn’t sexy enough to attract enough new young blood in greater volumes.

“There are only so many skills that can be replaced by technology, but we don’t have anything affordable in place that can be considered mainstream and viable for major housebuilders and SME builders alike.”

Ben also conceded that the technological revolution was by no means a guaranteed solution to the housing crisis.

“The pace and scale of change within the construction sector will depend on the degree of client demand for new processes and the willingness of companies to invest.

“CITB is carrying out research in this area and will continue to work with industry and government to ensure the right training is in place to produce the skilled workforce required.”

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