Construction: A New Frontier for Tech-Savvy Innovators

Think construction work, and the physical steps of building may come to mind: pouring concrete, bolting steel, installing systems, and hanging drywall.

But beyond the cranes, lifts, ladders and tools, a technological revolution is taking place. While one person may be operating a front-end loader, another is flying a drone. While crews are setting up scaffolds on one floor, someone is setting up a 3D laser scanner on another floor.

Though construction initially fell behind manufacturing and other industries in adopting technological innovations, it is rapidly closing the gap. Driven by tight labor markets and clients’ expectations for speed to market, construction is turning to digital design, virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence. That, in turn, creates opportunities for individuals with a background or interest in technology to find impactful roles in construction.

“Construction companies want to adopt technology, and they need people to help them do that,” Robins & Morton’s Director of Corporate and Operational Technology, David Pratt, said. “When you combine technology and construction as a career path, you have an opportunity to be an innovator and make a difference. It’s a new frontier.”

A United States Air Force veteran, Pratt also has a background in computer science. Later, a chance encounter led to a job offer in construction.

“I got into construction and thought, ‘This is cool,” he said. “I fell in love with it. The people were great, and I found there was a huge hole for growth in technology.”

He has seen the construction industry move from two-dimensional blueprints to virtual-reality models that enable clients to interact with details of a building’s interior.

Technology career paths in construction

The common path into a technology role in construction is through Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) and Building Information Modeling (BIM), using digital design and modeling tools. Traditionally, VDC/BIM departments were found at large general contractors and architectural and engineering firms. However, as VDC/BIM has become more widespread and accessible, even smaller firms are using the applications, creating more opportunities for people passionate about technology and construction.

iPad image of in-wall elementsAt the same time, larger companies are expanding their technology teams to pursue innovation. They need people who can help them adapt existing tech tools for new uses, integrate resources into powerful solutions, solve project-specific challenges and create new tools. These efforts can include analyzing emerging technologies, developing software and exploring the growing potential for robotics.

However, those seeking to pursue technology careers in construction aren’t limited to general contractors. Trade contractors also bring sophisticated tools to their work. For example, lasers can transfer drawings to full-size templates for complex concrete pours and computer-aided manufacturing has found a place in prefabrication.

“As more companies in construction expand their use of technology, the doors open and they see opportunities they never had before,” Pratt said. “They need creative, tech-savvy people who can identify those opportunities and turn them into real-world applications that improve the way we work and build.”

Traditional information technology (IT) jobs within construction are changing, too, moving beyond the office support roles. IT professionals may find themselves in the field ensuring jobsites have the necessary connectivity and infrastructure, as well as assisting with technology implementation.

“The responsibility of the construction manager to keep a project on schedule is the same regardless of the technology,” Pratt said. “But if there’s a robot tying rebar, someone is going to have to program that robot.”
That kind of growing reliance on technology support team members is making them an increasingly important part of a successful construction project.

For those looking toward a technology-related career in construction, coursework and co-op or internship experience that includes VDC/BIM is a good on-ramp. However, as in Pratt’s case, construction is also open to tech-savvy, mid-career candidates.

“When I started, I was reminded that construction is about building: ‘someone has to swing a hammer,’” Pratt said. “But the industry is looking for smarter ways to swing that hammer. Supporting that process, and being part of seeing a building rise up, is extremely rewarding.”