Generation Z (Gen Z) is loosely defined as people born after1995. They are the first generation to be true digital natives. (Prensky, 2001)
With this skillset, a revolution is heading towards the Architecture,Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry.
Often nicknamed the “Digital Generation”, Gen Z has grown up in a world of technology. From their earliest youth, they have been exposed to the internet, social networks, and mobile systems. They have had the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, and so, gone are the days of needing to visit a physical location, such as a library, to help with homework and learning.
Being digital natives brings a unique set of skills, for example, the normalcy to independently research and teach themselves via the internet. With this skillset, a revolution could be heading towards theArchitecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry.
As an apprentice on a major UK civils project, I learned the software Autodesk Dynamo in this way (using online material) and have used it to solve problems faced in my previous role, as a Digital Engineer, on a nuclear power station.
Through Dynamo self-education, I progressed my knowledge to a level where I was expected to deliver training and support to others in my workplace. This demonstrates the benefits of a generation who find using technology for learning second nature. This is also compounded by good mentors guiding us to the correct learning subjects. As people new to the industry, we may not know exactly what it is we don’t know. However, with guidance from an experienced mentor we can effectively self learn a subject thoroughly enough to provide training on it further down the line. Therefore providing benefits to the wider team.
“The construction industry is dirty.”
“The construction industry is dangerous.”
“The construction industry has been left in the 20th Century.”
These are some of the answers you would have received if you had asked me what my impression of the construction industry was five years ago, after leaving College.
Through schooling, family, and some media articles,I was advised to stay away from the sector as a profession; and, it’s not just me that has this impression.
Research from Morgan Sindall's cross-business attraction forum has shown that:
· Less than one-third of Gen Z consider the industry to be a place to develop a career;
· 1/5A fifth of Gen Z consider the construction industry to have poor pay and;
· Only 31% thirty-one percent were aware the industry is a place they can develop digital skills.
This impression was compounded by the educational systems natural route that appeared to prefer students’ progress from College to University as opposed to other further vocational routes into the workplace.
Apprenticeships, for example, are a great route into the industry and can offer great careers, fair pay, and the chance to learn and utilise digital skills. However, during my A Levels, these weren’t often promoted as a viable route. Furthermore, from my experience in the workplace, most of my colleagues in digital construction have migrated over from a career in architecture.
So what routes are there for Generation Z to find their way into the industry?
As catalysed in the 2011 UK Government Construction Strategy, digital technology is transforming the way the industry goes to work. The boom of new technology in the construction industry has also led to new routes into fresh careers involved in digital construction. One of the main routes is apprenticeships, where an apprentice can complete a course whilst learning invaluable skills in the workplace and earning a salary.
There are also dedicated websites for apprenticeships in the UK, which is how I found my apprenticeship in Digital Engineering at Hinkley Point C (HPC)as an example..
My apprenticeship involved two courses, Civil Engineering and Construction and the Built Environment. These courses provided a background knowledge to the work that I was hands-on with everyday and, I think it’s fair to say that I learned more from my time in the workplace than in the classroom. Being taught how to apply my knowledge to do the job, manage resources and time, and how to communicate effectively was invaluable.
In my opinion, this quote to Gen Z. Patience is not something easily learnt by someone who has grown up in a world where one Google search can answer most questions. However, this impatience, or ability to critique existing ways of working, empowers Gen Z to find quicker and more efficient methods for slow or manual tasks wherever possible.
Gen Z, as the newcomer, can look at an ingrained problem in a new and refreshing way and may use their digital-first mindset, and tools, to solve things more effectively. From my perspective since joining the industry, there are plenty of opportunities for growth and development in the digital environment. As we all know, there are heaps a variety of software packages available and often the difficulty is not in finding software to solve the your problem but in sifting researching through the available software options to find the most effective one for the immediate need.
This process of research and exploration is made easier for Gen Z by their digital upbringing. Computers are used in their education from five to sixteen years old; with some using 3D modelling software in their later years at school.
Whilst working, a conversation I had with a Project Manager provided a helpful insight into the problems of integrating a digital generation into the construction industry. He struggled with picking between older, tried, and tested methods and newer digital solutions that promised higher returns in time or productivity. Although he is not the rule, he is also not the exception either.
What happens when a method that has been used for over ten years becomes replaced by a technology-based digital workflow?
I think that Integration is key here. From my experience of integrating digital workflows on a major civils site, slow and steady progress wins the race or to put it another way, winning hearts, and minds. When implementing a new workflow there will always be teething problems, so a slow, considered, and controlled rollout with direct support and training to new users enables construction professionals to continue to get their job done, whilst also learning and experimenting with the newer digital workflows.
Change may not happen quickly or consistently but it is possible. Take Hinkley Point C (HPC) for example.
When I started my apprenticeship there, all the rebar was installed using physical drawings on site for coordination. By the time I left HPC all the rebar was installed using 3D models in Trimble Connect running on tablets.
These models were driven by the Steel Fixers, who relied on these to complete the work effectively. You now couldn’t take the tablets away from them if you tried.
This demonstrates that whilst Gen Z has grown up in a digital age, it does not mean that digital tools are exclusive to them. Furthermore, Gen Z is a great teacher when it comes to the digital realm and if this knowledge and willingness are utilised effectively, they can help digitalise the entire workplace in a collaborative manner.
However, the construction industry is not without its flaws.
From my experience, whilst the sector has adapted to the digital world quickly, collaboration remains a struggle. For example, getting the plethora of available software to work seamlessly together can often be a challenge – which can include software from the same software vendor. With a positive spin on this situation, you might find a good outcome of this is that there are many ways to achieve the same goal. On the other hand, this can lead to difficulties when multiple companies come to work together and must integrate their systems with each other.
My experience is interesting when compared to the several reports and white papers published over the years. Often commissioned by the UK Government, such as the Farmer Report: Modernise or Die (Farmer, 2016) and its predecessors that have stated time and again that we need to close the gaps in our siloed working methods and also the need for technology to play a larger part in how we deliver efficiently and effectively to drive production up.
Yet here we are, in 2022, and still, we see similar issues in existence.
This is further highlighted by the latest, published, statistics (2021) from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which clearly states that “Average productivity levels in the construction industry have remained consistently below the UK average” (Martin, 2021).
Albeit I do not believe a lack of digital adoption is the sole reason for this trend. When set side by side with it’s commonly compared industries such as the automotive, aerospace and manufacturing industries, the construction industry faces many unique challenges:
Construction is one of the hardest engineering disciplines due to these factors. Nonetheless, the sector is behind many others who have modernised and embraced technology with open arms, and I believe pushing technology further in the industry can only bring good results.
We should be aware of the different benefits a digitally native generation can bring to the table and that their unique perspective is a tool that should not be overlooked. After all, Gen Z is next in line of succession for our beloved industry, so collaborate with them to put their digital skills to good use.
In order to capitalise on their insights, we first need to entice Gen Z into the industry. To do this, we need to understand what their values are and what gives them job satisfaction and that's exactly what we'll discuss in Part 2 of my article. I will give my perspective on how to bring Gen Z to the industry and, crucially, how to keep them in it.
Farmer, M., 2016. Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model: Modernise or Die, London: UK Government.
Martin, J., 2021. Productivity in the construction industry, UK: 2021. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/articles/productivityintheconstructionindustryuk2021/2021-10-19
Prensky, M., 2001. "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1", s.l.: s.n.
insights.morgansindallconstruction.com/story/are-we-gen-z-ready (accessed 25.07.22)
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