With the United States moving all-in on massive infrastructure investment, much of the discussion has focused on jobs and building new green industries for the 21st century. While the Biden administration’s plan will certainly expand the workforce, it also provides a massive opportunity for the adoption of automation technologies within the construction industry.
Despite the common narrative of automating away human jobs, the two are not nearly as much in conflict, especially with new investments creating space for new roles and work. In fact, one of the greatest problems facing the construction industry remains a lack of labor, making automation a necessity for moving forward with these ambitious projects.
In fact, one of the greatest problems facing the construction industry remains a lack of labor, making automation a necessity for moving forward with these ambitious projects.
The residential construction industry alone had some 223,000 and 332,000 unfilled construction job vacancies at the peak unemployment rate of 15% in 2020, but that’s actually about the same when unemployment was only at 4.1%. Between 1985 and 2015, the average age of construction workers increased from 36 to 42.5, while those aged 55 and older increased from 12% to over 20%. The 2018 Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that workers under 25 comprised just 9% of the construction industry, compared to 12.3% of the overall U.S. labor force.
Productivity in the construction industry has likewise remained static since 1995, primarily driven by the aging demographic of the existing labor force, the apprenticeship nature of the job, and difficulty in attracting and retaining new workers. In short, there is insufficient labor to do the job, while existing staff are becoming increasingly less productive as skilled workers that have accumulated decades of experience in their crafts are lost due to retirement.
Automation will need to be a key element of any major infrastructure push, especially if we hope to meet the ambitious goals of current proposals. That being said, not all areas of the construction industry are primed, or even viable, for this shift to automation.
The challenges of construction automation
Construction is one of the world’s largest industries but has two major challenges: market fragmentation and complex stakeholders.
The construction industry as a whole is nationally fragmented but occasionally locally concentrated. This differs depending on the segment and type of construction company, with each generally comprising less than 10 workers. The top 100 general contractors account for less than 20% of the total construction market. Subcontractors are even more fragmented, with top players accounting for less than 1% of the total market share. This makes sales processes and scaling very slow and highly inefficient.