‘To get a certain amount of building output you need a certain amount of young men to do it – by ‘young’ I mean 18-40 years old – that hasn’t changed and that rate hasn’t changed,’ Robert says. ‘But it has got to change if we want to keep meeting the built environment needs of an expanding population…and we’re going to have to find ways to do it with fewer men.’
It is one big change the construction industry has never seen before and it’s already forcing the industry onto a path of innovation to discover more productive ways of working. Increased automation and offsite manufacturing are deemed the inevitable conclusion; just how soon, and how big of an impact it will have on the way the industry operates, is still unfolding.
‘If you look at something like the prefabrication revolution, five years ago it was really just a fringe cottage industry. But today, there are companies such as Lendlease investing around $500 million into a prefabricated timber factory in Western Sydney. They think this is the future.’
There are also some overseas players achieving astonishing ground in this space: ‘Michael Marks, CEO of construction company Katerra, has raised $3 billion of venture capital to start up his prefabricated building company. Imagine what you could do with that! He’s fixing to change the entire building industry.’
Robert admits it’s hard to argue with the sceptics when you can walk onto a random building site today and it probably won’t look that different to what it did 20 years ago.
‘There’s a kind of two track thing going on and that’s why these shifts often catch people by surprise,’ he says. ‘But there’s a small step that goes from a prefabricated frame to a prefabricated composite wall assembly that does away with the carpenter altogether – and that’s when they’ll start noticing it. These options are already out there.’
So, how do you prepare the current workforce as well as newer entrants? And if increased automation, and robotics, as some firmly believe, are part of the equation, how do you skill workers for jobs that don’t yet exist?
Robert says that, of course, is ‘very, very difficult to do’.