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The talent shortage: Will the training the AEC industry desperately needs arrive in time?

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The talent shortage: Will the training the AEC industry desperately needs arrive in time?

Sasha Reed | October 4, 2016

It may not be in every AEC industry news headline, but it’s a reality every overworked project team member knows well.  The talent shortage in AEC is affecting many professionals on multiple levels.  As Technology becomes an ever-increasing reality in our daily work lives, productivity expectations, to do more with less, grows. 

Just in case you’re not experiencing this in your corner of the world, here are a few headlines to get you caught up; “Shortage of skilled construction workers in growing industry”, “As construction heats up, so does skilled worker shortage”, “Where did all the skilled labor go?”, “Changing Roles, Technology, and the birth of the super foreman” As the construction industry bounces back from the Great Recession, an entirely new class of tech-savvy construction professionals has been created, and the supply of these highly skilled, tech-proficient pros has been quickly exhausted. Not since the introduction of the power tool has technology played such a large role in the growth of construction.

Which brings us to the increasingly important subject I want to focus on: training. Creating the workforce we need to grow and improve as an industry requires an intense amount of training, both in the classroom and on the jobsite. So how do we not only create the educated workforce we need, but do it in a way that maximizes value, reduces the impact on project schedules and results in the most highly trained workforce possible? The world won’t stop for our industry to catch up. So how do we evolve while we deliver?

Before we discuss further, however, let’s just get this out of the way: The amount of energy that goes into creating end-to-end training programs is wasteful. Really wasteful. Technology changes so rapidly, project timelines are so compressed, and the need to get things right the first time is so paramount, that the mindset of “just-in-case” training no longer matches the current business environment. Project managers cannot be pulled off the jobsite for two weeks to learn massive new software platforms, only to return to a job that is behind schedule. Not to mention face the reality that they have to train everyone else in order for them to implement what they just learned.

To be fair, I have spoken with those who strongly disagree with my view. They believe a systematic training approach is worth the upfront investment.  However, I question the agility of such a system given the ever-changing requirements of owners and the rapid evolution of technology. To systematically capture lessons learned project to project is super valuable, but how you distill those into deployable workflow lessons?

Taking a page from the Lean Construction philosophy, what if we shift the focus away from end-to-end, just-in-case training to specific tech-enabled workflows, deployed right before they’re needed on the job…Just-In-Time training?  The idea is to give project leaders the ability to leverage the most current technology addressing specific workflows, allowing them to take advantage of the flexibility they need to deliver results quickly.

This idea came about during a conversation with a CADD Administrator who doubles as an in-house trainer for a Department of Transportation (DOT).  They implemented our technology in order to digitize their design review process.  I asked him for “lessons learned” after having spent 5 long months building a training curriculum for their design review staff.  Nearly two months after the training, I was following up to ask about the process and results, and what he said really resonated with me.  If he had to do it all over again, rather than teach features, he’d simplify and invert the curriculum to focus on the “context” of the work. He’d design modules that walked through workflows relevant to the work these professionals do on a daily basis. All the curriculum they put together—classroom time spent learning features in a vacuum—resulted in a lot of rework and one-on-one coaching. 

This lesson seems like a logical one in hind sight. With the growth of an on-demand culture, driven by accessibility to learning content on platforms like YouTube, it seems surprising how many organizations still approach technology training with the end-to-end approach.

So what is Just-In-Time training? Just-In-Time training delivers a focused amount of information to the learner exactly when they need it, rather than requiring them to store large quantities of knowledge just in case they need it. Instead of attempting to cover every aspect of an application as it applies to every imaginable workflow, Just-In-Time training seeks to impart only the knowledge required for a single workflow followed by the immediate application of that training.

The benefits of Just-In-Time training are twofold. By limiting the length of the training process, the overhead costs of training are severely limited. Employees are off the jobsite for a much shorter amount of time since the training is much more focused, boosting time-to-productivity. And because the training immediately precedes the application, retention is greatly improved. People have vastly different reactions to learning something they can implement immediately vs. learning something they might need some day. Since the retention level of Just-In-Time training far exceeds the retention of just-in-case training, it results in a more highly trained and motivated workforce. Without the sense of urgency that immediate application provides, the learning process can become detached from reality, limiting its effectiveness and ultimately demotivating the learner.

By reducing the time off-site and increasing retention, the ROI of Just-In-Time training is measurably superior to just-in-case learning. Viewed in this way, Just-In-Time training can be seen as another predictable piece of an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) process. Focused training reduces the impact of on the project schedule because it becomes part of the project schedule.

Yes, all construction projects are different, but all we do as an industry are construction projects. And that is manufacturing. We are in the business of manufacturing buildings. So what is our assembly line? Our assembly line is made up of  people, their personal knowledge, the larger organization’s knowledge, the raw materials and the technology-driven processes that brings them all together at the right time and the right place to get the job done as efficiently as possible. If we consider knowledge and organizational intelligence to be just as modular and assignable as the materials we need for each phase of construction, then we can distribute training in exactly the same way.

When training can be redistributed appropriately from a single source to each project, and even across multiple projects, you are now leaning-out the delivery of your knowledge in the same way we have learned to lean-out delivery of materials. And if knowledge is always stockpiled, ready to be delivered in the right quantity at the right moment, then the knowledge is always available. And given the needs of the industry to bring a new generation of skilled professionals into the workforce, it sounds like this idea may have arrived just-in-time. 

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