Skills development in the building sector: what are the challenges?
Over the last few years, the construction industry and the building sector as whole has seen a slow implementation of new skills, which have not developed evenly across all countries. For example, the uptake of Building Information Modelling was faster in some other construction markets, such as North America than in the EU. These disparities are also visible among Member States. Although the focus on digitalisation has largely been on BIM, digitalisation and new skills refer also to pre-fabrication using robots and 3D printing, drones, 3D scanning, sensors, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Several challenges are currently slowing the modernisation of the construction industry, such as the lack of skilled workforce, lack of investments in R&D, and difficulties of SMEs (which represent 98% of the construction chain) to uptake innovation and expensive R&D. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered other challenges to those already present in the industry and that could deepen depending on the severity and length of the crisis. As highlighted by PWC in a recent report, some construction projects may be delayed, or eventually cancelled, as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the companies and governments that commissioned them. Furthermore, possible supply chain bottlenecks of equipment, workforce or materials could cause project delays in currently funded projects or reduced spending on future ones. Consequences may affect the whole construction market, leading to subcontractors to become vulnerable to bankruptcy.
Although confronting a complex scenario, this health emergency is shedding new light on the fact that digital skills could potentially and actively help organisations to thrive in the digital era. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in an increased interest in digital skills and more specifically BIM-related skills emerging in the construction sector. Such skills development ought to be focused on building control, and health and indoor environmental quality. In this respect guiding documents on how to operate and use building services in areas with a coronavirus outbreak to prevent the spread of the disease are being constantly updated on ever-changing information about COVID-19, available here.
The construction market currently requires a profound development of skills and competences in BIM and digitalisation to attain integrated project delivery. The application of BIM may require more effort or time spent during the design phase compared to conventional processes and requires the acquisition of new skills.
The European Commission (EC) has set up BUILD UP Skills as a strategic initiative (started under the Intelligent Energy Europe (IEE) programme) to boost continuing or further education and training of craftsmen and on-site construction workers in the building sector. The aim is to increase the number of qualified workers across Europe to deliver high-energy performance building stock. The initiative addresses skills in energy efficiency and renewable energy systems in buildings and it contributes to the objectives of two flagship initiatives of the Commission’s ‘Europe 2020’ strategy — ‘Resource efficient Europe’ and ‘An Agenda for new skills and jobs’.
In May 2019 the Build Up Skills Initiative organised a workshop during the CONSTRUMAT trade fair in Barcelona. The event addressed identifying and addressing barriers to the digital upskilling of construction professionals. Key conclusions were:
- a lack of a workforce trained in digital skills remains one of the biggest hurdles to Europe achieving its ambitious energy-performance targets for buildings;
- there are still too few players in the construction industry who have started implementing digitalisation in their processes, particularly SMEs;
- digital technologies can play a role in enhancing the energy performance of buildings (e.g. through 3D-scanning and BIM);
- the need to train and qualify also building owner and public administration to secure the adoption of digital technologies.
Ongoing European projects
There are currently several European projects developing BIM qualifications and training schemes to deliver the required skills, and this section will mention few of them. The BIMplement project is based on the assumption that an enhanced, systematic approach for delivering energy efficiency in buildings is needed. The project focuses on reducing the gap between the designed (predicted) and actual energy performance of buildings. This reduction could be achieved by having a qualified and well-equipped workforce that can deliver high quality nZEB-projects with a proper understanding of their own responsibility and actions as well as the other professions involved in the value chain.
The BIMEET project aims to broaden the BIM training agenda to support the EU building energy efficiency agenda by developing a skill matrix related to BIM and energy efficiency. BIMcert focuses on digital skills, whose development is not a linear progression. They propose several micro accreditations as one way of achieving linearity. To that aim, the project is developing a set of Building Information Modelling learning tools, which will allow geographically dispersed construction project teams to use technology to enhance information exchange and collaboration. The micro accreditation proposed in BIMcert provides recognition for bite-sized pieces of learning (of benefit to both, individuals and SMEs) and enables appropriate Recognition of Prior Learning including from existing EU- funded projects.
The Horizon 2020 funded project Net-UBIEP (Network for Using BIM to Increase the Energy Buildings Performance) aims at increasing energy performance of buildings by wide spreading and strengthening the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM), during the life cycle of the building. The use of BIM will allow to simulate the energy performance of the building using different materials and components, both to be used in the building design and/or in building design refurbishment. Net-UBIEP Project will increase energy performance related competences of 6 professional figures: BIM evaluator, BIM facility manager, BIM manager, BIM coordinator, BIM expert, BIM user. Through project implementation, about 1000 BIM evaluator and BIM facility manager will increase their competences with energy performance; 1.000 BIM Managers, BIM Coordinators and BIM Experts will be able to implement BIM satisfying energy performance requirements; 1.100 BIM Users will know how to read BIM model with energy requirements.
In addition and besides digital skills, the FIT-TO-NZEB project has been focusing on understanding which competencies are required and it has attempted to develop taxonomies of new required energy-efficiency related competencies. The BUStoB project has emerged to fill the skills gap with the introduction of training modules covering a range of subjects related to green skills for the building and installation workforce. There is also the PROF/TRAC European Qualification Scheme on nZEB skills project, which targets higher degree professionals. The Qualification Scheme constitutes a solid basis to compare the nZEB skills required by the different professions and from one country to another. The project also provides an extensive library of nZEB-related courses, and free on-line courses. The Train-to-NZEB project aims to provide training to improve the knowledge and skills in the construction sector and to provide practical training, demonstrations and a comprehensive consulting service for the design and construction of Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings (NZEB) supported by RES, based on the Passive House concept.
Readily available tools for building professionals
Different types of tools are needed to foster skills development. The EU H2020 funded project BuildHEAT, aims to drive change in the construction sector, bring information and coherence onto the market, facilitating the decision making and planning processes. This is performed, among others, with the production of tools such as the development of training kits that addresses technical, behavioural, cultural and economic perspectives in the retrofit of buildings. Such training kits range from issues on building energy consumption over Europe, on building retrofit, to industrialised energy solutions in residential building retrofitting and lessons learnt from the case studies.
Mobile apps, such as the recently developed mobile app for skills in construction, the BUILD UP Skills Advisor app, are becoming increasingly important. The app intends to provide construction workers with job-specific advice and short upskilling opportunities. By turning on the app notifications for specific techniques, the user automatically receives updates on the most current courses offered as well as question sets based on practical real-life situations. This app has also benefitted from the new e-learning modules of the BUStoB project, covering more than 70 thematic areas and including gamified exercises.
As part of the Interreg Mediterranean Programme, we find the tool Teeschools, which consists of a platform developed to familiarise energy efficiency concept or professionals, experts and students from 7 Mediterranean countries (Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and Cyprus) with energy efficiency issues. The project’s main activities include pilot activities, an on-line tool, open lessons, conferences, trainings, and an e-platform.
The future outlook: European support programmes for skills development in the building value chain
The upcoming new Horizon Europe programme will drive the EU’s research and innovation over the upcoming years from 2021 to 2027. In particular, the Pillar II Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness is organised into “clusters”. Of relevance will be Cluster 5 Climate, Energy and Mobility, which will include support for energy efficiency in buildings, as well as Cluster 4 Digital, Industry and Space, that will include digitalization in industries and SMEs. A cross-cutting public-private partnership for a sustainable built environment is also being developed under Horizon Europe, which will ensure that research and innovation tackles this broad subject from several angles including both energy and resource efficiency. Additionally, the EU’s long-running and successful LIFE programme for environment and climate will expand to include market uptake support for the clean energy transition. It is likely that further support for construction skills would fall under this programme.
In can be concluded, considering the effects of the lockdown and the challenges that the construction industry is already facing, more than ever skills are needed to turn the energy transition into a viable reality across Europe and that the European Union is ready to support that.