By Mark Drury, Shapiro and Duncan, Inc.
In a digital world—enabled by smartphones, laptops, tablets and the cloud—construction is rapidly transitioning from a “work harder” to “work smarter” industry. This digital transformation is opening up new opportunities for millennials as they look for ways to apply their technology skills developed through social media and video games into business applications that lead to a career.
With the combination of a slow decline in productivity and efficiency during the last 50 years, a steady decline in personnel entering the industry and a rapidly retiring baby boomer population, the construction industry skilled workforce falls short of demand by almost 1.8 million positions, based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s latest estimates. Driven by an improving economy, the construction industry is projected to grow despite this shortage of skilled people, which will boost wages and costs to the owner.
Technology is one way to close the workforce gap in the construction industry. Not only does it create ways to do more with fewer people, but it also attracts more “digital natives” to the industry to help boost innovation and find more ways technology can help get things done.
Mechanical contractors are embracing technology in all departments; following are a few examples.
Using web-based tools, customers can request a service call from their computer, tablet or by using their smartphone. The service department dispatcher immediately receives the request, a service call is initiated, and a technician is dispatched to address the issue. The client receives immediate feedback, including an estimated arrival time, and will have access to any updates, changes and the technician’s diagnosis, including the estimated cost and time to complete the work.
Technicians utilize a tablet-based system, and when they go onsite to perform routine maintenance or repairs, the work order is on the tablet and the technician just has to enter the data—much of which can be selected from drop-down menus. Service technicians email this information directly to the client as it is uploaded to the main database on the company server. With the entire service process now being tracked electronically, customers can access the information on their building and each piece of equipment at any time and in real time.
With advanced purchasing software, every purchase order (PO) generated is completed using a database of pre-loaded items. Not only can purchasers complete these POs more quickly than in the past, but they also can use search functions to track the history of certain items and see which vendor is providing the best price.
An even more significant technology-driven trend in mechanical construction purchasing is the alignment of standardized product codes across all industry segments. With this move toward standardization, orders soon will be uploaded and forwarded without duplicate entry and the often confusing translation of codes involving contractors, supply houses and manufacturers.
Because of the need to track costs, accounting departments have adopted technology the soonest. The top trend is integrating other software systems, labor and task-tracking tools that feed into payroll to ensure accounting is getting labor cost information on a daily basis. Integrated purchasing systems also have pushed accounting away from manual data entry and paper purchase orders.
As a result, more construction accounting departments are going paperless. Several companies are adopting electronic document management systems, which not only “read” invoices when they are uploaded, but also file them—making the documents instantly accessible. This use of automation has cut down manual data entry and improved the accuracy of recordkeeping, enabling the department to focus more on tasks that add greater value to the organization.
Aided by new bidding software and FTP sites, it only takes minutes for estimators to upload RFPs with drawings and specifications. Meanwhile, bidding software allows them to automatically keep track of who is bidding, what documents they have and which documents they have opened, making the process more efficient. With the use of digital on-screen estimating software, employees can perform takeoffs electronically for pipe runs, valves, fittings and equipment, and using a pricing database generate detailed, quantitative cost estimates with the click of a mouse.
At many construction firms, blueprints are going the way of the typewriter and the rotary phone. Today, drawings are distributed among subcontractors and vendors in the cloud, where users can look at them digitally or print them out on a local printer. Today, a lot fewer trees have to die to get a project built.
With advanced GPS tracking systems, contractors incorporate more accountability and communication in the delivery process. Dispatchers know how close drivers are located to a specific site and how long it will take them to arrive. The system automatically generates mileage logs, which are digitally captured and stored to eliminate the time-consuming task of filling out paperwork. Additionally, GPS mapping systems provide more efficient routing of deliveries and important traffic information to prevent delays.
In addition, materials and loads can be digitally tracked using barcode scanning and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Foremen will know upfront what was loaded on a truck because the load was scanned into the tracking system, and they can access it on a tablet or smartphone.
Workers in the field used to have to spend valuable time waiting in line to punch in their timecards. Now, companies can use a gateway portal and an RFID chip specific to each worker’s hardhat. When the worker goes through the portal, the system automatically tracks the in-and-out time—significantly cutting down wasted time each worker would have spent waiting in line to punch the time clock.
Technology also enhances jobsite coordination. Foremen and superintendents can walk the job with their tablets and access drawings digitally through the web and cloud, without having to run down to the trailer and unroll a big blueprint. Using GPS tools, they can quickly complete and instantly access digital piping layouts and penetrations. And when they need to communicate, they can send out instant email notifications.
THE TECH TAKEAWAY
By moving away from time-consuming and paper-filled processes of the past, and incorporating new digital tools in their place, mechanical construction companies can increase both efficiency and productivity and stay more competitive to meet customers’ expectations. At the same time, technology is opening up a new side of the industry for young people who combine a love of all things digital with a willingness to work with their minds and hands.
As this digital future unfolds, business owners have a responsibility to tell the public about the changes technology is bringing and the promising careers available in an industry that is expected to continue to grow to meet the demands of the improving U.S. economy.
Mark Drury is vice president of business development at Shapiro and Duncan, Inc., a third-generation, family-owned mechanical contractor in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit shapiroandduncan.com.