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The Next Generation Of Builders

Fewer young people are entering the construction industry, leading to skills shortages, says Clinton Matos. What can be done to make training more appealing?
Image: ©Unsplash - Igor Ovsyannykov Image: ©Unsplash - Igor Ovsyannykov

There is very little reason for youngsters to visit the Bauma Conexpo Africa, which takes place every year in Johannesburg. The construction industry trade fair isn’t the kind of place you take the kids for a fun day out. Those of school-going age who are there, though, seem to be drawn magnetically to one stand in particular, that of Barloworld Equipment, South African distributor of Caterpillar (CAT) machinery.

The reason is that it is offering expo visitors a try on the simulators that are used to train up operators before they get behind the controls of the real machines, and everybody seems to want to have a go.

These simulators include exactly the same control layout as the machinery they’re trying to teach, and have a display to show a user what they’d see out in the field. The programme will instantly be recognisable to anyone who has ever played videogames.

The company also offers a virtual reality (VR) app, the Cat Technology Experience, which allows anyone with a smartphone to experience what it’s like to operate these machines, without leaving the house. Originally intended as a way to show customers the newest products without bearing the cost of transporting them to shows, this app, like the simulators, have become a hit with younger people.

Samantha Swanepoel, divisional executive director of marketing and digital at Barloworld Equipment, also talks of future show floors where holograms will be used to show off the latest products, allowing more people to experience the show at once, while taking up less room than a show stand with VR headsets, and hopefully inspiring young people to enter the construction industry.

This is important, because the industry has a crisis. Over the last few years, many reports have highlighted the problem that artisans are ageing and are being replaced by informal or uncertified workers (see page 27). Part of the problem, as Abimbola Windapo of the University of Cape Town puts it, is that “today’s youth have no preference for hands-on labour and would rather work with computers”.

Building just isn’t seen as an exciting career path, and there’s little reward for those who enter the trade as blue-collar workers without a specific skill. But there are opportunities. The most recent labour statistics from Stats SA showed that, while the construction industry shed 11 000 jobs in the final quarter of 2016, overall there were 14 000 more people employed in the sector at the end of that year compared to 2015. In total, there are just under 600 000 people employed in the sector.

What’s more, the salary bill for the industry rose by over three times the increase in worker numbers, suggesting significant pay increases over the 12-month period. In the last quarter, when jobs fell by 1.8%, the salary bill rose by 7.4%.

Research from the Construction Industry Development Board suggests that only 10% of contractors have formal training or qualifications, and 38% have no training at all. Given that trained contractors can earn 20%-30% more, the incentive for the next generation of builders to skill up is there, but you have to look hard to find it.

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