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Puget Sound Construction Leaders Turn To Technology To Address Labor Shortage

Seattle Technology

Seattle’s construction boom has created thousands of jobs for local construction workers, but are there enough people to fill them? One local firm offers a way for construction companies to work smarter and more efficiently, using technology to address the labor shortage.

LEED AP BD+C Lead Architectural Consultant Ross Wagner trains PNCI instructor Sam Moles on PlanGrid.

As the demand for trained labor increases, contractors are seeking innovative ways to recruit new hires and make job sites more efficient.

Industry insiders at Bisnow’s recent Future of Downtown Seattle event reported worker numbers are so tight, it is a scramble to get big projects done on time. That means overtime and other costs are going through the roof, ultimately driving up prices for the tenants who live and work in the finished buildings.

In Seattle, where the technology sector dominates the workforce, many leaders in the construction industry are turning to cloud-based software and mobile applications to change how projects operate. When it comes to digital adoption, construction is behind mining, government, healthcare and every other industry except agriculture and hunting.

PlanGrid is construction productivity software that allows contractors to use mobile devices and desktops to manage blueprints, specs, photos, requests for information, field reports and punch lists to work more efficiently.

The software application was created by two construction engineers and three software engineers who saw an opportunity when the iPad was first released in 2010. By 2011, PlanGrid was released on the market. The technology is now used on over 500,000 projects in 72 countries around the world.

PlanGrid's CEO, 32-year-old Tracy Young, said she has finally developed the solution that she wishes was around when she was working as a construction engineer.

PlanGrid CEO Tracy Young

While working on a California hospital managing the coordination of all the medical, mechanical, electrical and plumbing requirements, Young found paper hard copies of blueprints and plans significantly increased her team’s labor time and costs to the owner.

“The building owner wants the latest and greatest medical equipment, which means the room requirements change,” Young said.

A small alteration could mean 50 blueprints need to be updated and distributed to 500 workers in the field. The clunky process would often result in workers building off of outdated information.

“We rebuilt those operating rooms five times over the course of three years. Which means we finish these rooms, then we realize the equipment can’t be installed as is, so we tear down the room and rebuild them. It’s incredibly costly.”

2009 study in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management found the median cost of rework due to poor document control is about $4.2B/year in the U.S. alone.

“So many of us in the field end up working 12 hour days, not because we’re incompetent, but because we can’t distribute paper fast enough to make sure we don’t make mistakes,” Young said.

PNCI carpenter Jen Netherwood

Chervenell Construction General Manager Brandon Mayfield said his Kennewick-based company opted for PlanGrid software to reduce the administrative burden, ensure a real-time single stream of information and to attract millennials.

“We are trying to overcome a lack of manpower with technology,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield said many of the young workers who train in Eastern Washington are ultimately pulled west to the booming Seattle market. Offering technology as a tool of efficiency has persuaded more young people to stay.

“We have several young employees who have really embraced it and are championing the effort. There’s definitely an excitement, and I know it's playing a role in retaining folks.”

Retention is a key part of the equation. The need for skilled construction industry workers is only going to go up, according to U.S. Labor Department data. The demand for masonry workers is expected to grow by 22% from 2014 to 2024. That is more than twice the rate of projected overall 7% job growth in the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Similarly, demand for electricians is projected to grow 18% over that 10-year period. Demand for roofers is expected to grow by 15% and for plumbers by 13%. Only demand for carpenters matches the overall growth, projected to rise by 7%.

PlanGrid on the iPad

Before PlanGrid, one worker on Mayfield’s crew might identify a problem, but it would take days for the paperwork to reflect the issue to other workers, resulting in costly mistakes. Now a worker can identify the issue within the PlanGrid app on one of the 20 iPads Chervenell uses in the field and instantly notify the rest of the team via the cloud.

“Just to have centralized information and not spend as much time manually updating is huge for us,” Mayfield said.

PlanGrid lead consultant, Great Lakes, Lorrin Blair shows PNCI instructors what the app looks like on the iPad.

Young said her experiences in the field resonates with many in the construction industry — a big reason why her software has been so successful. In 2016, PlanGrid made the top 10 in the Apple Store’s enterprise app category. The software is offered at a scale ranging from a free trial to $119/month. The product is also offered for free to higher education institutions, so instructors can use it as a teaching tool for construction engineers in training.

“As an 18-year-old graduating from high school, when you walk onto a job site, everything feels foreign. But when you see iPads everywhere, it’s easier for them to understand what they’re trying to do,” Young said.

Along with Chervenell Construction, local users of PlanGrid include Lease Crutcher Lewis, Sturgeon Electric, Pacific Northwest Carpenter's Institute and Shimmick-Parsons JV, the company working on the Sound Transit E320 South Bellevue Extension.

In a tech-savvy market like Seattle, where demand for construction labor is growing by the minute, a digital tool that increases productivity and attracts a younger demographic has potential for rapid adoption.