Building blocks for life-long learning

A conference next month aims to demonstrate new technology in construction

Seamus Hoyne, dean of flexible and workplace learning at the Technological University of the Shannon

With smart infrastructure and zero-energy building on the agenda, new skills are in demand right across the construction sector. Paradoxically, however, due to high demand for new buildings and diminished numbers of skilled workers, many people working in the industry are unable to access traditional training as they are simply too busy.

Seamus Hoyne, dean of flexible and workplace learning at the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), said the sector was still suffering from the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

“There were a couple of impacts. Firstly, a lot of people became unemployed and went elsewhere, so we lost a lot of experience and know-how. The second thing is, many people who came to work here from elsewhere in Europe returned home as the economies there started to grow. Thirdly, it created an image problem for construction and enrolment in construction related courses,” he said.

At the same time, though, the sector has been revolutionised, both by a technological revolution and the introduction of new building energy standards. As a result, new skills are now needed on-site.

"We have modern methods of construction and we have a lot of digitalisation of the construction process, in particular of the design phase".

“There have been radical changes,” Hoyne said.

“We have modern methods of construction and we have a lot of digitalisation of the construction process, in particular of the design phase. Our architects, engineers and quantity surveyors are much more digitised”.

The traditional trades are changing, too, Hoyne said, notably with a greater number of integrated systems due to smart energy systems into buildings.

“The pace of development of technology is extremely fast and this means people need to keep learning. In the past, if you were a construction worker then you needed less up-skilling. Now you need to be updating your knowledge over the course of your career,” he said.

“When you graduate from your apprenticeship, or your engineering or quantity surveying degree, you absolutely need life-long learning because of changes that are going to happen in the near future,” he said.

However, considering both the major labour shortage in construction and demand for building, it is essential, Hoyne said, that education and training providers needed to change how they delivered skills.

“Really flexible delivery and provision is now critical, particularly in the construction sector where we have full employment nationally. The sector is desperately looking for workers, so people have less time for training,” he said.

Both the higher education and further education sectors were responding to this, with innovative and flexible approaches that suited both learners and businesses alike.

“We have blended learning, with a portion online and a portion as ‘block release’ where people can do the practical aspects. You also have micro accreditations, where you can do blocks of learning to get a major award,” he said.

TUS, for example, embeds micro credentials in its programmes, and has now developed a Level 8 Higher Diploma in Energy Retrofitting.

“It’s looking at fabric, systems, and retrofit management. People can do those certifications on their own, do the whole diploma, or add the three up to the Higher Diploma,” he said.

This was only one example of how education was evolving to meet the country’s needs, Hoyne said. Another is the deepening links between the further and higher education sectors.

“For example, we are working closely with Waterford-Wexford ETB, Laois-Offaly ETB and others and we are offering a certificate in training in Zero-Energy Building for people who work in ETBs,” he said.

TUS also brings students to the National Construction Training Centre in Mount Lucas to take advantage of its facilities.

Putting it on show

The next step is getting the information out there, both to employers and prospective students. In order to do this, Hoyne will be among the attendees at a major event next month looking at how technology and training are intersecting, representing TUS.

Organised by the Digital Academy for the Sustainable Built Environment (DASBE) with partners including Atlantic Technological University, Irish Green Building Council and Tipperary Energy Agency, the Transforming Construction Skills conference, to be held on 9th May at the Midlands Park Hotel in Portlaoise, will bring together industry professionals, educators, professional organisations and researchers to discuss the range of upskilling available to construction professionals and to discover the latest trends and emerging technologies.

“We've three themes driving the content in the conference. One is around impact, one is around innovation, and the third is around integration,” he said.

Attendees will hear from students funded under the DASBE scheme as well as organisations and businesses who have collaborated in the development of programmes. Technologies on display will include virtual reality (VR) and digital twins.

“On integration, we’ll hear about how we have collaborated with ETBs [Education and Training Boards] on innovation, as well as on European initiatives,” Hoyne said.

Ultimately, he said, the conference will be a major step toward addressing both the skills shortage and the reality of how busy construction firms and their workers are.

“We don't have enough quantity surveyors coming out of universities – they're being snapped-up in third year or fourth year, [and] we don't have enough people going into apprenticeships in plumbing and blockwork. We also have people working in the sector who need up-skilling who are very busy due to the shortage".

The Transforming Construction Skills conference intends to put the solutions on show.