How Automation Could Impact Jobs in the Construction Industry

7 July 2021

“The robots are taking over!” “We’re going to lose all our jobs!” These are just some of the questions running on most people’s minds as the automation wave sweeps across. But is it true? Will automation take away construction jobs? Many experts say it’s impossible. 

Automation is no longer a futuristic idea in the construction industry. It’s the trend. Everywhere you go, construction professionals are slowly shifting to automated, tech-based workflow. 

And, it’s understandable. Automation streamlines inefficient processes, effectively boosting productivity. For example, routine site and asset inspections are now automated in many job sites, allowing project teams to complete tasks faster and with fewer errors. 

Automation has also helped bridge the talent gap. At a time when the industry has suffered from a shortage of skilled personnel, automated vehicles, such as drones, and software, such as fleet management programs, came to the rescue. 

It goes without mentioning, but automation also makes job sites safer. Besides helping with real-time risk assessments, automated solutions also assist workers with day-to-day tasks. Exoskeletal machines, for instance, help workers with heavy lifting, drastically reducing the risk of injury. 

However, the question many people are asking is whether the machines are here to replace humans entirely. Will robots, drones, driverless cars, and other automation solutions take laborers’ jobs and, if not, what can we expect. 

Automation Applications 

To answer that question, we first need to determine the role of automation in construction. Where does automation fit in the industry?

Automation has three primary roles in construction:

  1. Automate repetitive tasks
  2.  Automate modular construction
  3. Part of digitization. 

Automating repetitive tasks is likely to have the most significant impact on the industry. Typically, it involves replacing laborers with machines for tasks such as laying bricks and paving roads. These jobs are critical for the industry. 

However, their repetitive nature means that they can breed boredom and complacency – thus impacting safety and productivity. 

The easiest way to understand the role of robotics and automation in construction is to picture a 3D printing process. Homeowners love modular houses, and engineers back them because modular is a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to build. As a result, modular houses are becoming increasingly popular. The only way to build modular structures is through automated 3D printers. 

Finally, automation as a part of digitization is happening all across the global economy. Whether in education or health, organizations are digitizing records, taking meetings online, and adopting digital monitoring techniques to replace human supervisors. For one, it improves access to information and boosts collaboration. Additionally, digitization improves efficiency. 

Impact on Jobs

From the above discussion, it’s easy to see that automation will have a huge impact on the industry. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that robots and other automation solutions will replace certain individuals in the workforce. 

For instance, who needs a clerk to record minutes during a meeting when you have conferencing software? Also, you don’t need many people in the facade printing plant when you can have robots handling 90% of the process. 

So, you may be thinking – it’s done. It’s finally happened. The robots have won. Everyone is going to lose their jobs!

No, it’s not happening. Not any soon. Although the role of robots in construction, and nearly every other industry, will only increase from here onwards, most construction workers can expect to retain their jobs. Here’s why;

          1. Machines lack creativity

Evidently, robots are primarily taking over repetitive tasks. The main reason is that robots can’t think for themselves – they aren’t creative. 

The construction industry is driven by creativity. It’s driven by thinkers who can innovate. Take an example of city buildings. The world is slowly transitioning to environmentally-friendly trends and modern architecture. However, no two architectures are the same. If you gave the same job to two different architects, they’d come up with different plans. 

This is where robots fall short. They can’t think beyond what’s fed into the algorithms. As a result, if we were to leave everything to algorithms, we’d have near-similar buildings everywhere. 

Since no one wants their house to be a copy-paste of their neighbour’s, most people will still opt for human builders rather than machines. Builders know this too. Therefore, although many companies are adopting automation to create plans and prototypes, they mostly use them as guides and references. 

          2. Machines lack empathy 

Another reason why robots can only handle predominantly repetitive tasks is that they lack certain human qualities, such as empathy. 

You’ve likely heard that a few people are also ready complaining about working from home. Why? Because they miss the human touch. In one article in the New York Times, the contributor says “work from home is overrated,” saying that it’s only viable for groups for whom traditional office work isn’t viable. 

The main complaint is that the absence of a human touch makes it impossible to work productively. “It’s lonely, which explains the popularity of co-working spaces,” the writer says. 

The same issues always spring up when you “fully” automate the work environment. The few workers left increasingly suffer from loneliness, and lack of human empathy can drive them to depression, thus reversing the gains of robotization. 

The Future 

There are many other reasons why automation will not adversely affect jobs in construction. Indeed, some experts predict that we could have even more jobs once the machines arrive. Their argument is based on the need for human intervention. 

For instance, as we worry about robots taking up the roles of workers who lay bricks, the same robots will need data analysts and Machine Learning specialists to get them to work optimally. Likewise, while we may no longer need data entry clerks to keep track of materials, we’ll undoubtedly need digital transformation specialists and information security analysts to keep the robots and software updated. 

According to most experts, automation will eliminate millions of jobs and render many others obsolete. But the construction industry will ultimately add more than 200 million jobs by 2030.