Plastic excavators, bulldozers and cranes fueled by imagination have long captivated toddlers. Now, the construction industry is trying to attract teenagers with realistic computer simulators of those same heavy machines, hoping to build a younger workforce.
With the retirement of baby boomers in full swing, the construction industry is grappling with its biggest challenge: refilling its pool of employees. But it faces significant resistance among younger workers. Many of them consider the field unstable after six years of double-digit unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession. Or after constantly being told by parents, teachers and politicians that a college education is paramount, they find the work undesirable.
“That generation that would bring their kids to work and have them sit on their knee while they are operating a road grader, that generation is gone,” said Ben Eakes, asset manager for Eutaw Construction Co. in Madison, Mississippi.
“We’ve gone through the grandfathers and the fathers,” he added, “and now we are at the generation of the sons, and a lot of the sons aren’t wanting to do this type of work.”
And there is a need for fresh blood. Projects are surging, and unemployment in the construction industry was 5.1 percent last year, its lowest rate since at least 2000. Rapidly losing the most experienced workers while demand is high could delay projects and hurt the industry.
To attract replacements who grew up playing “Call of Duty,” some construction companies, unions and schools have turned to simulators that replicate jobs done by heavy equipment, like pushing dirt or lifting steel. Whether it will persuade enough digital natives to embrace hard hats is unclear, but the industry agrees that a revitalization is necessary.
More than three-quarters of construction firms in the United States said they were having a hard time filling some or all of their positions, according to a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America that was released in January. Thirty percent said worker shortages were the biggest concern for their firm, by far the most pressing of 16 issues, ranging from growth in federal regulations to rising material costs.
Midsize construction companies are most at risk by the loss of fresh hands in the workforce, said Michelle Meisels, who leads the engineering and construction practice at Deloitte Consulting. “If they can’t attract the talent, and the boomers are retiring,” she said, “it’s going to be difficult to win work or even deliver work that they have in their backlog.”
Eutaw Construction bought its first simulator, an excavator by Caterpillar, late last year and is working to develop its recruiting program by forming partnerships with community colleges and nonprofit organizations.
Crane Industry Services, which focuses on training and certification with companies across the United States, wants to teach students who may otherwise be baffled when they drive past a job site populated with machines, said Debbie Dickinson, its chief executive. It recently obtained a portable simulator by CM Labs, a software company based in Montreal.
“They know they move big things, but how it all works is a mystery,” Dickinson said. “Until they sit down in the seat of a simulator and the lights start turning on.”
Simulators are a popular genre in PC games, with titles like “Construction Simulator,” “Farming Simulator” and “American Truck Simulator” converting the tedium of a job into a form of entertainment. But using a mouse to navigate cannot truly replicate the physical demands of operating heavy machinery.
Professional simulators rely on physics and collision engines to create immersion, an experience that intrigued Trey Henry, a 17-year-old senior at the Academy for Career Education trade school in Reno, Nevada. He attends a simulator program at the Nevada chapter of Associated General Contractors that serves as training for him and scouting for his instructors, who work for area construction companies.
Starting the excavator simulator, a bulky mechanical chair, is more involved than pressing a button to turn on a PlayStation 4. Before the virtual vehicle starts moving, Henry said, you have to turn a key, increase the throttle speed, engage the hydraulic lock and, yes, buckle your seat belt.
“I was on the excavator and digging a trench, and I got stuck a little bit, and it jerks you like you’re stuck,” Henry said. “You actually feel the chair moving when you pull the dirt.”
The Nevada chapter installed loader and excavator simulators at its headquarters last fall to promote an industry that was hollowed out by the recession, and where regional competition for workers now includes a major Tesla battery plant.
Using a simulator means the group does not have to take an actual machine out of service, find a suitable location to operate it or pay for the diesel fuel, said Craig Madole, the chapter’s chief executive.
Each simulator cost about $80,000. The excavator, which has three screens, can also be used with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which produces a 360-degree outdoor canvas. Two pedals operate the tracks, and joysticks move the boom and open the bucket.
Henry said his experience — he has spent about seven hours on the simulators — has persuaded him to pursue a career working with heavy machinery.
That is music to the ears of construction veterans who have been delivering a refrain in unison: A nationwide emphasis on college education has stigmatized the industry, they say, even though its careers offer competitive salaries without the need of an advanced degree.
The median salary for construction equipment operators was $46,990 in May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A shifting economy is another culprit. As family farms have faded in states like Minnesota, so has the familiarity young people once had with machinery, said Jeff Kraemer, owner of Kraemer Trucking and Excavating in Cold Spring, Minnesota. It pushed the company to think of alternative ways to introduce students to the trade.
This month, in a partnership with Ziegler Cat, it brought a trailer of simulators — a bulldozer, a road grader and an excavator — to a local high school. It has held introductory sessions there for several years, and has eventually hired some students who tried the simulators.
“What we do is difficult for most people to really understand,” Kraemer said of construction work. He added that direct exposure to the industry was uncommon. “Anytime you see our type of equipment, the road is closed; it’s blocked up,” he said.
The construction industry may be doing a poor job marketing how it integrates technology, such as using drones and artificial intelligence to monitor safety on job sites, said Meisels, the consultant. Although simulators have been regularly used in aviation and the military, it took time for technological advances to push prices low enough for the average construction company, said Drew Carruthers, director of training solutions at CM Labs.
There has been a general uptick in interest, he said, and the company has emphasized how simulators can provide a return on investment. Operating heavy machinery can be intimidating, and simulators remove the possibility of damaging property or injuring people.
Construction companies need the confidence that new operators are not going to destroy their equipment, Carruthers said. “So what you want in a simulator is a safe environment that puts fear in you that there are consequences for your actions.”
Simulators work to engage multiple senses: Most have real controls in the proper locations to help users develop muscle memory. Even the sounds are reproduced accurately. CM Labs records real-life equipment because each squeaky part and every straining engine can indicate optimal performance or incoming disaster.
Several students at the Fulton Schools College and Career Academy outside Atlanta said they determined the construction industry was not for them after challenging experiences on a crane simulator. It required depth perception and hand-eye coordination to latch the crane’s hook before weaving objects between buildings, cars and streetlamps.
“You had to understand people’s lives were in danger,” Christopher Sparks, 17, said. “I felt like every time you hit something, it would move in a certain way so you would have to restart every time. It was like a video game on hard.”