Technology in the toolbelt: Not just banging nails anymore

News-DemocratSeptember 15, 2013 

The organic grocery store under construction in Fairview Heights is being built with the latest technology by a workforce trained to use it.

GPS and lasers are doing the work that tape measures and heavy equipment used to do to set building sites. Scott Kennedy, the field superintendent from Fairview Heights-based Impact Strategies who is overseeing construction of the 28,000-square-foot Fresh Thyme Farmers Market at Illinois 159 and Lincoln Trail, said the field has evolved and computers are rapidly sharing and disseminating these measurements, drawings and other information with all involved in the project.

"We're using iPhones now," Kennedy said. "We get a lot information that we didn't have before."

Impact Strategies President Mark Hinrichs said the company's field managers go through extensive training on the latest technology. He said the construction sector has been transformed by iPhones and other smartphones with mobile apps providing more efficiency in communication and documentation. Professionals in the industry have had to adapt.

"It's really a continual training process," Hinrichs said. "There has been a strong push over the last number of years for environmentally responsible and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) so that all involved are required additional training. All of our management people have gone through LEED certification training in the last four to five years."

The industry demands workers with these skills, but many construction firms across the country are struggling to find enough of them. According to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, 74 percent of construction companies struggle to find qualified workers. The association also reported that these companies expect labor shortages will get worse.

Len Toenjes, president of Associated General Contractors in St. Louis, said the industry had been lagging behind in technology until recently.

"It is a struggle to keep up," Toenjes said. "I know some of the trade unions are working to mandate refresher training into labor contracts. The carpenters have been very aggressive trying to mandate continuing education into maintaining union membership."

At the Carpenters District Council of Greater St. Louis, director of training and workforce development John Gaal said joint training programs that are overseen by both the union and management have helped bridge the skills gap.

"There is too much depending on the high level of technology in the system," Gaal said. "Now, data is loaded by the engineer and the architect's drawing are done on their respective databases on devices off satellite and GPS technology. You can't just say I lug around and bang nails anymore. That will not fly too far in the future."

At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, educators are trying to bridge that skills gap with the latest technology and training. Chris Gordan, associate professor and chair of the school's construction department, said SIUE's construction program is rigorous and provides the technical skills that are in demand.

"We're seeing a lot of change in the industry," Gordan said. "There are a lot changes creating a lot of opportunities for our students to hit the ground running."

The university also tries to meet the industry's demands with its annual Construction Leadership Institute. Sandra Hindelang, director of executive education at the SIUE School of Business, said that for the past decade the nine-week program during the spring semester provides knowledge and skills that would otherwise take years of experience to develop. She said this is especially vital as 25 percent of the industry's skilled workforce is getting ready to retire.

"There are absolutely great jobs to be had in this industry," Hindelang said. "The more we can get people, especially young people, out there to understand the real opportunity out there, the better it will be."

Hinrichs said he has hired many applicants who have graduated from SIUE's construction program.

"They've done a fantastic job, not only in construction engineering degree program, but also on the continuing education side of it," he said.

Gordan said the program's graduates are receiving multiple offers. He also said many professionals from the industry are returning for further training.

"We do have students who come back from the industry and are pursuing undergraduate degrees in order to advance in the industry," he said. "We're just trying to innovate as fast as the industry is innovating."

Toenjes also said some need to be retrained.

"It's no different if a CPA has so many hours of ongoing education to maintain credentials," he said. "I think the days of just knowing how to operate a shovel and broom and operating a jack hammer are pretty much over. There's a much higher level of sophistication than there was in the past."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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