Tech can boost construction sector's appeal, say observers

They highlight skills training and other changes as ways to attract more young people to the field

Structural engineer Colin Yip moved to the Amsterdam office of his employer, engineering consultancy Arup, in 2011. He was shocked to discover how high-tech his field could be.

For example, his team would carry out complex engineering calculations not manually, but by writing computer programs.

Back from the year-long stint, Mr Yip, 38, now promotes the use of such technology in the Singapore office. Gone are the days of spending a day or two on calculations when a change in building geometry must be analysed. He simply runs the configurations through a program, and is done within minutes.

"I can spend quality time on designing rather than on laborious work," he said.

The smarter use of technology is an important focus of the Construction Industry Transformation Map launched yesterday. The road map also looks to encourage greener buildings. Steps in the plan include the training of 80,000 workers with relevant new skills by 2025.

Observers say these changes can draw more young people to jobs in the construction sector.

"As they learn about the technology, students begin to realise the built environment sector can be as modern as any other sector," said Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) president Tan Thiam Soon.

To prepare people for new jobs in the sector like design engineers and logistics planners, the Built Environment SkillsFuture Tripartite Taskforce is charting training paths that involve institutes of higher learning (IHLs), internships and continuing education. The group will set up, among other things, a framework to update IHLs on industry developments, a capstone programme for final-year students and scholarships to attract students to the sector.

Courses at IHLs are now being updated to equip students with the latest skills. SIT, for example, is developing a new Design for Manufacturing and Assembly module for its civil engineering course.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari said the unions will guide workers on how to get trained in the new skills. They will also build a pool of mentors for students, and professionals, managers and executives, keen to join the sector. Mr Zainal is also executive secretary of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union, which has about 6,000 workers in the construction sector.

He said some roles may change due to new technology, but he does not expect many to be out of work, as there is a shortage of Singaporeans in the industry.

Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore president Nelson Tee added that older staff are willing to learn new technological skills, but must be given enough time. "In this line... we can have young, tech-savvy people as well as older workers with a lot of experience from different projects and from life," he said.

But technology can go only so far in raising the sector's appeal, said human resource expert David Leong of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, as a great deal of work is still done outdoors, such as the laying of pipes when pre-fabricated building components are assembled.

The key is to specify challenges that people are excited to solve: One example might be building subterranean cities, he suggested.


Key transformation moves

  • Build a higher-skilled workforce focused on digital technologies:

    •To attract more IT-savvy Singaporeans, jobs will involve higher skills training in construction technologies, and offer more competitive salaries and a better work environment.

    •More structured internships and a comprehensive training pathway for people to pick up new building technologies will be developed by a task force, comprising BCA, institutes of higher learning and industry associations.

    Increase the use of more productive construction methods:

    •Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) - a highly productive method of construction which moves traditional on-site work into off-site factory environments - should see 40 per cent adoption in all projects by 2020. The Government will also continue to roll out private land sales that specify the use of DfMA. There will also be up to 10 local prefabrication hubs by 2020.

    •Construction processes are digitised through Building Information Modelling, which allows various stakeholders to collaborate from an early stage. This has been progressively mandated for certain key projects. BCA will develop standards to ensure interoperability of the Integrated Digital Delivery system which integrates designers, builders, subcontractors and facility managers in the building's life cycle.

    Build progressive and collaborative firms:

    •The Government will review public procurement practices to place higher weighting on non-price components such as productivity and quality scores. A working committee will be set up to look at collaborative contracting models to facilitate greater cooperation among firms.