Providing Short-Term IoT Solutions to the Construction Labor Shortage

Rose Morrison
Construction, Labor, IoT
Illustration: © IoT For All

The construction industry today faces some intimidating challenges. On top of widespread issues with timeliness and expenses, the sector faces a growing labor shortage. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, 81% of construction firms have difficulty filling positions.

This worker shortage is driving an already notoriously behind-schedule and over-budget industry’s productivity to suffer. A 2019 survey revealed that 70% of construction businesses report that they’re struggling to meet deadlines because of the shortage. Another 63% said that new work is more expensive now because of it.

Technology, specifically the Internet of Things (IoT), can help. While IoT devices won’t fix all of the industry’s problems, they can provide short-term solutions to the labor shortage.

Factors Behind the Labor Shortage

To understand how the IoT can help, you have to know the factors behind the labor shortage. A significant reason for it is that younger generations aren’t as interested in the industry. Most construction workers are older, and younger workers aren’t filling the vacancies they leave.

This disinterest in the sector stems from several misconceptions and stereotypes. For example, 61% of surveyed contractors have heard many people believe that construction is “dirty” work. Another 55% heard similar things about people thinking these jobs require brute strength.

It takes time and exposure for these misconceptions to fade, but they’re not the only obstacle, either. Construction is skilled labor and requires a potentially lengthy training process for new hires. This may turn some away from the industry and slow the integration of those who do join.

Reducing Time on Inspections and Paperwork

The primary way IoT can help in this area is by making the most of a diminished workforce. IoT devices can improve the sector’s available workers’ productivity, so the shortage isn’t as impactful. All of the industry’s paperwork and inspections, in particular, stand to gain a lot from IoT.

In construction, contractors have to perform many inspections and record their findings before work can begin. IoT devices can give them remote access to different sites to do this without being physically present. Some companies have cut setup times by a third thanks to these services.

Remote technology like drones and video calls enable contractors to inspect multiple sites without moving. These devices can also gather data to facilitate streamlined, paperless filing after the inspection. IoT sensors at the worksite can also give managers and stakeholders real-time information about progress, helping them set goals and expectations remotely.

Expanding Communication

Construction involves many different teams and stakeholders that need to communicate for a project to succeed. IoT devices and services make this communication clearer and more efficient, which in turn improves productivity. Better communication means less confusion and wasted time, leading to faster project turnarounds.

Phone calls tend to interrupt project flow since they require workers to pause and are often unnecessary. IoT sensors and drones can provide real-time information to anyone who needs it, helping avoid these calls. When people can remotely and instantly access all the project information they need, they won’t need to call to re-clarify.

Digital twins are an industry-specific IoT-based solution that can help struggling construction firms. These systems provide a digital model of a project that updates in real-time as the real thing does. With this information, stakeholders who aren’t on-site can see how the project’s going at all times and respond accordingly.

Improving Safety

Safety is a top concern for the construction industry. The sector has the most fatal injuries of any industry, which can scare away potential workers. Workplace accidents are also expensive, cause delays, and hinder productivity. Thankfully, IoT technology can improve this aspect of the job too.

Wearables are some of the most revolutionary IoT technologies for construction safety. Connected watches or hardhats can sense when a worker is in danger of overexertion or another health risk. They can then alert the employee and their manager to take a break before an injury occurs.

As of 2018, only 6% of construction firms had implemented wearables. But their adoption is growing. Like sensors near ledges, other IoT devices can alert employees to other dangers, like slip-and-fall hazards. As more teams embrace these technologies, the industry will become safer and more appealing to potential workers.

Optimizing Machine Operation

The construction industry relies on many heavy machinery types that can create substantial problems if workers aren’t careful. Careless operations and unexpected breakdowns can cause lengthy and costly delays. IoT connectivity in these machines can help construction teams avoid these situations.

IoT’s most significant advantage in this regard is predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance is a practice where IoT sensors analyze a machine’s inner workings and alert workers of any upcoming problems. This proactive approach to repairs fixes issues before becoming a more pressing matter, increasing machine uptime by 20% or more.

Predictive maintenance isn’t the only area where IoT devices can improve construction machine operation. IoT devices in these machines can also record data about how employees use them. This information can reveal any suboptimal behaviors that managers need to correct, helping the whole team become more productive.

Streamlining Training

Most IoT Applications so far have been about improving current workers’ efficiency. That’s not all IoT can do to help mitigate the impact of the labor shortage, though. These devices can also help train new workers and bring fresh employees into the industry faster.

Wearables like augmented reality (AR) glasses can provide useful training resources to new employees. These hands-free devices display instructions or tips in a worker’s field of view as they work. That way, they have readily available guidance without having to stop whatever they’re working on.

Also, voice controls can let workers look up any questions they may have about their job while working. These features all help new hires learn faster and develop confidence. Construction firms can fill open positions faster as a result.

IoT Is Helpful, but Not a Cure-All

IoT presents several benefits to construction companies, but it’s not an all-in-one solution. The worker shortage is a complex issue. As such, businesses can’t address it with a simple answer. It will take broader, longer-term changes to reverse the labor shortage, and IoT is only part of this process.

IoT technologies can make construction safer, more efficient, and more profitable. These improvements will help sustain the industry with fewer workers and potentially draw new ones, but they won’t solve everything. IoT can’t rid younger generations of widespread misconceptions, at least not without time.

It will take years for any substantial cultural change to occur, and it will take more than IoT. These devices can serve as a useful tool to make the most of an unfortunate situation until then. IoT may not be a cure-all, but it can help.

Construction Needs to Invest More in Tech

Even if there weren’t a labor shortage, IoT’s construction benefits would be hard to ignore. While the construction industry has historically been slow to adopt new technologies, IoT is too enticing to pass on. These devices could revolutionize the sector by making it safer and more efficient.

As the construction industry becomes more tech-centric, it may attract younger workers. And even if it doesn’t, technology like IoT will help it grow. If construction companies hope to be successful in the coming years, they should invest in promising technologies like these.

Rose Morrison
Rose Morrison
Construction industry writer and editor
Construction industry writer and editor