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Tom Boland, Global Head of Digitalisation at Zutec, explains what FutureDotNow’s recent findings mean for the sector and how this problem can be overcome.

More than 17 million people—around half the British workforce—lack basic digital skills. It’s an alarming statistic reported by FutureDotNow, and an issue which has long been overlooked by employers across all industries, including retail, services, manufacturing, the public sector, and our very own: construction.

Further, only 23 percent of employees have reported receiving any digital skills training and support from their employers.[1] This is a major problem for the construction industry in particular, which is the least digitised sector. A construction digital skills shortage amounts to sluggish productivity, errors and reputational risk, and also prevents us from achieving major goals such as building safety and Net Zero 2050.

That is why the UK Government has introduced the Building Safety Bill and Construction Playbook. Both drive the point home that in 2021, the skills to be able to create and manage digital building models and data are not just a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘must have’.

A golden idea

The absence of digital skills can make or break a project in the construction industry. Looking at building and fire safety alone, structures built without a digital plan in place could be deemed unfit for inhabitation. In 2017, Dame Judith Hackitt said in her interim report following the Grenfell Fire that “there needs to be a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded, and any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design”.[2] Focusing on the latter part of that statement, while it’s important to have the design recorded in order for changes to be made, it’s equally important to have people involved who know how to successfully make those changes.

This means architects, engineers, contractorsbuilding inspectors and facilities managers will need to have access to, and know how to use, digital tools in order to manage the construction process from the planning phase through to handover. Hackitt recognised in her report the potential for BIM to transfer the documentation process onto a digital platform, and, over time, the Government began to set the rules and standards clarifying what digital requirements are needed to establish the golden thread of information. It published a document titled ‘A reformed building safety regulatory system’ last year which specified that duty holders will be responsible for creating and maintaining the golden thread related to fire and structural safety.

Fast forward to May 2021, and the Government has started to plan for ‘gateway one’—a number of new requirements that will be introduced into the planning system—which it plans to implement this summer ahead of the Bill’s release. The wheels are in motion for the use of technology in building safety, and those who don’t have a digital plan will be left behind.

Upskilling the industry

While it may seem like an almost impossible task to upskill staff in the use of digital tools, it needn’t be a daunting process. It’s necessary, not only in preparation for the Building Safety Bill, but for projects to progress at faster speeds, for compliance to be correctly followed, for seamless collaboration between teams and even for sustainability targets to be met. The sooner the sector gets to work on digital upskilling, the better prepared it will be for the inevitable changes coming its way.

Offering internal training programmes and mandatory courses can help staff at all levels become better acquainted with the latest technologies, including cloud-based platforms, such as Zutec, BIM, and data analytics applications. The CIOB also offers various webinars and CPD resources on construction technology and the vital role it plays in the built environment. With remote working becoming the norm during the pandemic, using these tools to work and communicate with others will soon become second nature and their benefits will become increasingly apparent as time goes on.

For companies who have the capacity to hire new recruits, engaging with a younger generation of construction (and construction technology) professionals will also help to further bridge the digital skills gap, as well as help to resolve the ongoing skills shortage on the labour and trades side of the sector, where young people are far from the majority. At Zutec, we have been doing our part to encourage fresh graduates and young employees to use their existing digital skill sets to better understand and use construction technology. This is crucial to ensuring digital tools are used now and in the future, and that knowledge of their use is passed on to each new generation of workers.

A warning for us all, but a solution is in our midst

Few in the construction industry would deny we are playing catch-up when it comes to digitisation, so FutureDotNow’s report is a timely warning. We need the right training, from basic online safety, to the use of virtual software for BIM, and data and asset management, to make sure the industry does not fall behind.

Dame Judith Hackitt and the Government have provided the impetus for the sector to make major changes to the way it does business, and to ensure that history does not repeat itself when it comes to people’s safety. The pandemic has already accelerated the use of online platforms and digital communication—let’s make sure we continue this much-needed trajectory for the good of our buildings as well as for one another.

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