Technology revolutionizes industry, leads way for companies to attract, retain younger workers
Actress Lily Tomlin once quipped, “The road to success is always under construction.”
Tomlin’s words could describe both the Region and the construction industry as a whole. In 2022, there were more than 1,300 projects scheduled for construction on Indiana roads, in addition to major railway and airport upgrades and expansions.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” said Randy Palmateer, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council. “We’ve got the refinery. We’ve got the whole lakefront. We have everything from heavy industrial, light industrial, commercial and residential.”
At a time when construction projects dot the landscape and reshape how Hoosiers live, work and travel in the Region, the construction industry itself is undergoing vast changes.
“As with all industries, technology is a fundamental driver of changes,” said Joe Zwierzynski, chief operating officer at DLZ, a construction services company with an office in South Bend.
To meet the growing infrastructure demands in Northwest Indiana, the construction industry also is under construction, as new technology revolutionizes the field.
Jon Gilmore, president and chief executive officer at Tonn and Blank Construction, remembers being the first person in his office to have a computer. It was 1989. Cellphones were on the distant horizon. Fast forward 30 years, and technology has revolutionized the construction industry.
Innovative software, 3D laser scanning and modeling, drones and artificial intelligence have changed almost every step of the construction process — from the architect’s first rough sketch to the builder’s finishing touches on the project. Building information management software allows everyone from engineers to contractors to collaborate on a realistic 3D model. Field instruments can project plans to scale onto frame walls, giving builders a map so detailed that small dots pinpoint the locations of screws. Gilmore likens it to hanging a projector on a crane to show the blueprints.
“In the old days, we would have actual paper prints,” Palmateer said. “Now it’s all tablets. I say ‘old days’ and I’m talking a decade ago. Instead of having the blueprint on the ground and showing someone here’s where the plug goes or here’s where the light switch goes, it’s all being done electronically now.”
New technologies have made building faster, safer, more efficient and more accurate. Because of that precision, Tonn and Blank Construction is able to design, fabricate and assemble building elements, such as exam rooms for hospitals, before moving and installing them at a final destination.
“We build buildings inside of a factory,” Gilmore said of the company’s 85,000-square-foot off-site construction division. “Then we take it out and assemble it in the field. We couldn’t do that 20 years ago. We’ve proven through technology that it’s accurate enough to do. There are no tape measures anymore in that building.”
High-tech construction methods, such as 3D laser scans, also have enhanced job safety. Laser scanners can collect millions of spatial data points in less than two minutes. The data creates a point cloud that displays the scanned object in 3D, with an accuracy down to fractions of a millimeter. The 3D renderings of the construction site or building are used for many purposes, including structural analysis. Scanning and analysis can be done at a distance.
“It keeps people out of harm’s way,” said Don Williams, a division manager at DLZ.
One of DLZ’s equipment suppliers, Trimble, recently partnered with Boston Dynamics, a company that manufactures construction robots. Spot, their agile, dog-inspired robot, roams construction sites, scanning, collecting information and uploading data.
“Drones and robots can see certain aspects instead of someone having to get into a boom truck,” said Rich Shields, senior director of marketing and business development at Chester Inc.
Chester, now a high-tech agricultural, architectural and construction services company, was originally a seed company, founded by Orville Redenbacher and Charles Bowman in 1947. The company tested thousands of popcorn seed strains. Like many companies in the Region, Chester evolved as technology transformed the industry.
“Northwest Indiana, especially being tied to the Chicago market, is on top of the technology,” Shields said.
Today, in the United States, there are 9,415,600 jobs in construction; 196,200 of those jobs are in Indiana. Indiana ranks fifth in the nation in construction jobs added in 2022, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Construction is a “feast or famine business,” said Palmateer, and the industry is thriving in the Region.
“There’s a lot of pressure on all of us in the building community to meet our customers’ demands,” Gilmore said. “The world demands more today. Everything is a right-now expectation. The new technologies are helping us to do that. As those technologies continue to evolve, so will the speed and quality of construction.”
Despite the technological advances, companies in the Region are grappling with the same issues plaguing industries across the country. Supply chain issues, material shortages and heavy construction workloads have presented a myriad of challenges.
“It’s a trifecta that impacts everything we do,” Zwierzynski of DLZ said.
Construction companies also are struggling with worker shortages. In 2022, the industry averaged more than 390,000 job openings per month, the highest level on record, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade association. They estimate that the industry will need to attract about half a million workers in 2023 to meet the demand.
“Indeed, the construction industry is no exception to the worker shortage,” Zwierzynski said. “It impacts the entire sector, from those involved at the design stage through the final build.”
To combat worker shortages, the construction industry is looking to the next generation. Retirement is draining the industry, with 41% of the construction workforce expected to retire by 2031, according to the National Center for Construction Education and Research. Companies, trade associations and schools are working to stay ahead of the numbers.
“In Indiana, we spend $54 million a year, just in the state of Indiana, on apprenticeship training,” Palmateer said.
Companies are partnering with schools, such as Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College, to train and recruit students.
Through Ivy Tech Community College’s building, construction and technology program, students learn carpentry, electrical work, and how to analyze and solve technical problems.
“They have to have more than one skill set now. It’s a whole different level. They can’t just be one thing,” said Bryant Redd, acting dean of the advanced manufacturing/machine tool program at Ivy Tech Community College’s Lake County campus.
Schools use innovative technology to teach students before their boots hit the construction site. Ivy Tech Community College’s South Bend campus is teaching through augmented reality technology.
“AR is a good selling point with the younger kids,” Redd said. “The younger generation loves it. You get a feel for it with AR and then go out and do the real thing.”
Growing up in a digital world gives students a boost in the industry.
“As funny as this sounds, students playing video games may actually help them on the job in the future,” said Afshin Zahraee, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s construction engineering and management technology program.
“I recently spoke to a concrete truck operator, and he mentioned that a lot of the technological advances in operating the truck, or even cranes that are used on site, employ similar toggles and joysticks seen in modern video games. He told me that younger interns picked up operating this machinery quickly.”
Back to basics
Construction is more than technology. Students also need to learn the fundamental skills of building. Students at Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College gain practical skills by working on construction sites and in labs where they build mockups of houses.
“It is not enough to just sit through lectures and PowerPoints,” Zahraee said. “Students need to have a taste of what is required of them on the job in the future and get that experience early before they lose interest and their passion for the field.”
One of the companies partnering with Purdue University to provide internships to students is Powers & Sons, a third-generation, family-owned construction firm with a location in Gary.
“The students are very strong in the technical side, and they need more expertise working on site,” said Sharon Mayer, senior estimator at Powers & Sons. “They have to learn by watching and interacting on site.”
Companies are working to fill the gap between the younger generation’s tech savviness and their practical knowledge of construction basics.
“Technology is a tool, just like a hammer is a tool,” said Williams of DLZ. “They can run the complicated equipment, but they don’t know how best to use that information. Anyone can push buttons, but they need to understand what’s behind the technology.”
As companies work with young adults, they also are promoting science, technology, engineering and math programs, in hopes of inspiring middle and high school students to join the field one day.
“Generally speaking, our entire profession needs better outreach to be sustainable down the road,” Gilmore said. “The more we engage youth, the stronger we will be in the future.”
“Construction does not like change,” said Gilmore, who has been in the business for 36 years.
Although change isn’t easy, within a few decades, construction has transformed into a high-tech industry. According to Gilmore, the human element is still key.
“We have to make sure we don’t fall into the problem of relying on technology too much. If you put garbage in, you get garbage out,” he said. “There’s always that human touch that needs to be supplied. And in our world, it takes a lot of the human touch.”
Across the construction industry, some say the old guard is stepping down and a new generation of construction workers is on the rise.
“They will bring the capacity and innovative ideas needed to address our country’s ever-growing infrastructure. The next generation has an entirely different frame of reference,” Zwierzynski said. “Their entire life has revolved around technology. They are much more adaptable, technologically speaking, and I think that can be great for innovation.”
Click here to read more from the April-May 2023 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.