As change accelerates in construction and engineering, can the talent supply keep pace?

24 Apr 2018

As change accelerates in construction and engineering, can the talent supply keep pace?

Construction and engineering companies are adopting new digital tools and methods and the future potential of disruption is becoming clearer by the day. What does this mean for the skills, talent and leadership required, not just today, but for the future? Jonathan Arnold continues his exploration of a changing industry.

Speak to Fergal Whyte, a Director at Arup Group responsible for infrastructure in East Asia, and it’s clear that the digital revolution is no sci-fi vision, it is already well underway.

“We see going digital as a way of optimising the engineering process to make better decisions and deliver better outcomes for our clients.

“We are driving this based on three pillars: automating tasks that are by nature repetitive, harnessing data and enabling uniform data exchange, and developing software products and platforms that support this way of working.

“For example, our structural teams are already using an in-house developed tool for parametric modelling where certain parameters are safeguarded in a design while others are allowed to vary. This leads to a final scheme that adheres to the most valued principles with the highest levels of structural efficiency and safety.

“Engineers are responsible for defining the logic and leave the tedious, repetitive work to computers. Design automation not only empowers engineers to work in a much more efficient and interesting way but also provides a higher quality of work.

“Engineers can evaluate many more options before they settle on one; and if anything changes, they can make the update very quickly. It will free them to be more creative and think at a strategic level. Engineers will have more time to enjoy being engineers.”

Virtual growth

For Richard Beard, Managing Director, Middle East and Asia at Ramboll, a leading engineering, design and consultancy company, “the world of virtual design and engineering is a fast-growing field”.

“We have seen rapid developments in recent years. Using parametric models, augmented by advanced digital simulation and algorithms, we can now embed design principles and intelligence into BIM (Building Information Modelling) tools and other advanced software. This helps us develop customised solutions for design and also for future management of the buildings.

“By incorporating digital design into the way we design buildings of the future, we have the ability to create highly innovative solutions while maintaining an incredible level of control in terms of precision, performance and quality.”

BIM and Big Data

Hugo Blasutta, President and CEO of WSP Canada, adds: “We may be overestimating the amount of change over the next two years, but underestimating over the next ten. Indeed, over the next ten to fifteen years, there will be much more activity around the digital and AI component of engineering, which in turn has a big impact on our human capital and staffing models.

“BIM tools are a big part of it, too, as is Big Data. Not just collecting it, but structuring it in a way that we can slice and dice, getting away from notional ideas of ‘I think this works well’, but instead having the data to say categorically ‘this works, and this doesn’t’.”

Leading talents

Alasdair Spink, Head of Odgers Berndtson’s Industrial Practice Asia Pacific, sees the implications for leadership: “Although driverless construction vehicles and self-building bricks won’t be with us for some time, technology already exists now that could transform safety and delivery, and reduce cost in construction.

“The tipping point will come when the industry develops leaders who can integrate technology into delivery within the financial constraints of highly competitive tenders or when a demand for technology comes from those procuring construction services.”

Skilling up

All of this activity will be count for little if the desire to change isn’t there, and that means having the right talent in place. Mark Reynolds, CEO of Mace, the $2.5bn international consultancy and construction business is clear that there is no time to waste.

“It is crucial that the construction industry works to attract, retrain and up-skill the current and future construction workforce in order to fill the jobs created by advanced technology. To avoid a cliff edge, this training must start now, not in five or ten years’ time.”

Innovators rule the new game

Hugo Healing, who heads up the Real Estate and Built Environment Practice at Odgers Berndtson in London, identifies the likely winners of this war for digital talent: “Increasingly, automated construction sites will force businesses across the supply chain to re-evaluate the skills they deploy, and where their key people will be able to leverage the greatest effect on a project or task.

“As ‘conventional’ trades are replaced, the challenge for the industry will be in thinking creatively about how it sources its talent and then how it incentivises those with these new skills to join an industry sector that may appear at first sight a little late to the party. Those businesses that can anticipate, adapt and then innovate faster than the competition are most likely to win the war for talent. Our experience of progress in other sectors shows that the construction industry is playing catch-up.”

Hugo Blasutta concludes by citing Bill Gates’s much-quoted observation: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”