How Automation May Affect the Construction Trades

January 29, 2018

A recent study released by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) asked what are the potential economic consequences of a highly automated construction industry, using data from the Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The report was conducted by Jill Manzo of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. Frank Manzo IV, MPP at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, and Robert Bruno, PhD of the Project for Middle Class Renewal at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discusses how technology may impact workers who build the nation's infrastructure.

The report's findings are thought provoking.

Based on the assumption that current technologies such as automated placement machines, AI-directed controls, autonomous vehicles, and 3D printing, will soon do the tasks now done by human labor, the MEPI study says robots and artificial intelligence could replace 38 percent of United States’ jobs by the early 2030s. In fact, Oxford University estimates 47 percent of jobs could be automated in the next twenty years. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a report that found for every robot per thousand workers that replaces human manual labor 5.6 jobs are lost.

MEPI looked at 10 construction trades to determine the percent of a given occupation that can be automated. They found approximately 49 percent of all construction tasks can be automated, but percentages are higher for certain trades.

While a machine cannot currently assemble temporary equipment or estimate materials needed for a project, machines can order construction materials and equipment, apply material to surface, mix substances, review blueprints, and perform other tasks that humans now complete .Roofers, electricians, carpenters, and plumbers will see less automation taking over their jobs because those tasks require human labor to solve unique challenges in uncertain environments. However, construction jobs that include running equipment, such as operating engineers, will have a higher risk of automation as AI-controlled machines start to routinely perform repetitive tasks within the next few decades

The MEPI study says if automation takes over routine tasks and replaces construction workers, there may be 435,000 fewer carpenters, 411,000 fewer laborers, and 404,000 fewer operating engineers in 2057 than there would be with current technologies. The U.S. economy would lose $21.1 billion in the forgone labor income of carpenters, $20.4 billion in the forgone income of operating engineers, and $15.6 billion in the forgone income of laborers. Painters and cement masons face a higher risk of automation; only 28,000 painting jobs and 27,000 cement mason jobs could remain in the U.S. economy by 2057. As many as 2.7 million construction workers could be displaced by automation.

MEPI offers several recommendations to counter the estimated job losses.

First and foremost, MEPI says it is imperative that lawmakers, public officials, and industry stakeholders start preparing for this potential economic change. Apprenticeship programs in the building trades should be adapted to re-skill current employees as specific trades become more automated. Training must be continually updated as rapidly as automation evolves so current workers are able to stay employed and new workers learn future skills. For example, operating engineers may upskill to run heavy equipment remotely - a task that demands both field knowledge and technical ability.

State and local communities must collaborate with educational institutions to invest in vocational training and worker re-training to lay a foundation of new skills for construction jobs. Continuing education will be a vital component for keeping construction workers' skills compatible with new technologies.

The MEPI also discusses how to fund training and the worker's transition time to an upskilled job. Read the entire MEPI report here:  The Potential Economic Consequences of a Highly Automated Construction Industry-What If Construction Becomes the Next Manufacturing?

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