HxGN RadioPodcast

The future of construction innovation

What drives young people to study surveying and construction? How can we prepare them for future challenges? In this episode of HxGN Radio, we sat down with Paul Holley, professor and director of the Center for Construction Innovation and Collaboration at Auburn University, to discuss how we can empower the next generation of surveying and construction professionals to build the future.

CG: Hello and thank you for tuning in to this episode of HxGN Radio. I’m your host, Christine Grahl. Unmanned aircraft systems, LiDAR, photogrammetry, laser scanning and autonomous data capture, these are just some of the technologies empowering the surveying and construction industries to achieve new levels of accuracy and efficiency. But it’s the next generation of professionals applying geospatial technologies who will build the future.

On today’s podcast, we’ll talk about what’s drawing young people to study surveying and construction, how we can encourage more students to consider these exciting careers and how we can help them prepare to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Joining me today is our guest, Paul Holley, from Auburn University. Thank you for speaking with us today, Paul.

PH: Thanks for having me.

CG: So, Paul, you are with the McWhorter School of Building Science at Auburn University. What is the primary focus of that programme?

PH: Well, the school is part of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction. And the degree that we offer to our undergraduates is in building construction or building science. Most of our graduates tend to go into their entry level careers with general contractors. In some cases, speciality contractors. In some cases, work for owners and real estate developers. But the primary focus is to prepare these students for a managerial based career in commercial construction. But certainly, technology and associated efforts play a big role in that.

CG: Absolutely. So, what draws students into the programme? What do you find is the key reason for students coming in and wanting to participate in this programme?

PH: Well, I think there’s a variety of sources. In many ways, we are seeing more and more students come to the programme because of their family business, or maybe a friend or a mentor or a neighbour. But somehow or another they’ve been exposed to the construction industry. I think that some students come to us from another major. So perhaps they started in civil engineering or architecture and over the course of their early classwork and so forth, they realised that they would rather be on the performance end of the contract, as opposed to the design side of things. I think that the media in Hollywood have done a good job of portraying architects and engineers. But it’s not unusual for high school students or parents, or guidance counsellors for that matter, when you say, “Hey, would you like to be a construction manager?” And there’s a certain amount of unknown there. So, we do get a lot of kids who change their major once they understand what’s available.

But I think in general, the students have a wide range of interests. I think that as opposed to say 20 years ago or 30 years ago, the career options have broadened so much within construction that it really has opened the door for students with different personalities or career interests and so forth feel like that they can have a place in the industry. So, everybody doesn’t have to go outside and pour concrete. Although that sounds like a lot of fun to me. But certainly, with technology, artificial intelligence, virtual design and construction, a lot of general contractors are starting to self-perform more scope, sort of a return to more self-perform work, as opposed to just managing contracts. Even residential builders are getting more sophisticated. And so, there’s just a lot of things that draw the young people to that.

I think that most of the young people that come realise that it’s a demanding business, work hard and play hard. And they’re ready for that. They’re ready to be challenged. They know that it’s not a 9-to-5, ride the bus and take your lunch kind of profession. And for the student to whom that appeals then building science or construction management is a pretty appealing discipline.

CG: Now, technology is a very important part of what students are learning right now what is being expected in the field. I know construction companies, engineering companies, they are interested in kids who know technology. And that’s something that they look forward to having within their firm. And I know that Auburn does a lot with technology. What kind of geospatial technologies are students working with right now? And I would assume it’s not always what we think. Maybe some of the basic technologies are still needed, right?

PH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that in general what does change is the baseline expectation. So, 40 years ago, there were almost no expectations because technology was not nearly as well employed. I can remember in my own career after college the day that my first employer got a fax machine, and that was the technology of the moment. And we’ve certainly come a long way since then. So today I think that there’s a certain baseline expectation of things like word processing, spreadsheets, making presentations and those kinds of things, which for many, if not most, college students that’s pretty well established, just from being 18 years old. But in our curriculum, there are lots of places for the employment of technology. And we try to start them out relatively early in the curriculum. Although, like most four-year institutions, the first two years typically include quite a bit of core curriculum. So, they’re taking some coursework in the major, but also a lot of history, literature, physics that sort of thing.

At Auburn in the building science curriculum, students will relatively quickly start to utilise software platforms in parametric modelling. We have a required course in construction surveying and layout. And to your point, you’re exactly right. We don’t start these guys out with a robotic total station. We start them out with a 100-foot tape and a plum bob. And within a matter of days, they have graduated to builders’ levels, reflectorless total stations, and other types of instruments. And that’s really one of my favourite things about teaching is that these guys are such quick learners and so eager to learn and understand how things work. They may want to take the instrument apart or something, so you have to sort of keep them in cheque a little bit. But gosh, the students are such quick learners and it’s amazing to watch those guys operate.

Also in our curriculum, we have advanced IT classes where they have the opportunity to utilise robotics, artificial and virtual realities, mixed realities. Laser scanning is something that we have been involved with for, gosh, probably 11 years now. We had, in fact, a Leica laser scanner donated to us from industry and then graduated and bought a Leica C10 scanner. And we found that reality capture for as-built conditions or existing conditions or conditions prior to renovation or addition that that is really technology that we think has got a lot of opportunity in it for the students. We were a pretty early investigator of unmanned systems and drones and so forth. It’s very commonplace today and it would be easier to count the contractors who don’t use drones, I think. But only six or eight years ago, before the FAA made licencing available for commercial pilots, it was really up to educational institutions to figure all of that stuff out.

So, we use a real wide variety of technology-based platforms, and the students have a lot of opportunities to do that, either in required coursework or in electives and so forth. In our graduate programmes, we have similar opportunities. And as you might suspect, at the master’s level and at the PhD level, we have students who really want to get down and dirty with investigating technologies and how they’re adopted and so forth. In fact, we have two students at the moment who are investigating the use of RFID tags in construction. So, another technology that I think has some real potential in the forefront.

CG: You make the programme sound like so much fun. I would imagine that it’s pretty easy to draw students into it at this point. I’m curious how students have changed. You’ve been with the programme for more than 20 years, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change in that amount of time, not just with the technology, but with the students that are coming in and how they approach technology, how they approach communications and things like work ethic. So, I’m curious what you’re seeing about the students that are in your programme right now and maybe how that’s changed over time.

PH: Sure. I think that I see it personally and on several different fronts. I was in industry for a number of years before I think I got tricked into academia. But I’ve been at Auburn for 20 years now. And really been amazing to see how the student body changes, how the industry changes and, whether I like it or not, how I’ve changed. And in a lot of ways, 18 to 22-ish year-old students today they sort of follow the millennial footprint. They’re visual learners, they like video, they like options. Their priorities are different than students say 10 years ago and certainly different than students 20 years ago. By the same token, I think that the construction students are particularly driven. It’s a competitive programme to be admitted to. And it’s a competitive industry. And they need to be prepared to work hard for what they’re going to get paid.

So, I think that the students have changed over time. And as faculty, it’s a little bit of a balancing act because part of our responsibility is in a professional academic programme to make sure that they’re ready, make sure they’re prepared, make sure they understand that the industry they’re about to go into has high expectations. By the same token, I think as faculty, we have to adapt to the students. And so, if you just sort of take the sage on the stage approach and go in and talk about stuff, that’s not a particularly effective way to get things done in academia these days. The students could go to Google and find that information. So there has to be ways to bring context and example and research, bring activities, different ways to present material, engagement with industry, competition opportunity, study abroad, service learning. And I think that has been what has made me really excited to stay in academia and really find that as a long-term opportunity personally is because it’s not just dispensing information, it’s really a much more dynamic and challenging operation to teach the students.

CG: Well, getting that hands-on experience, especially with the technology that you have available must keep the programme very engaging. But you can’t just stop there, right? Because what companies need right now is more than just technology understanding. They need to have people who come in and know how to get the work done. And so, I know Auburn is not just teaching the technology, but there are some soft skills that you are focusing on as well.

PH: That’s right. It’s an internal debate, I guess you might say. Because the industry is changing and growing and becoming more complex, buildings are more complex. And so, when you think about an undergraduate curriculum for a bachelor’s degree, well, that container is only a certain size. For better or for worse. And so, you’ve got to sort out ways to decide what things will you leave behind? What things will you say that we do need to do a foundation material here and they’ll learn the advanced stuff later, or there are things that we can move directly to more advanced things because other approaches are obsolete? And it’s a balancing act.

The other thing is construction is such a broad and organic subject, if you will, from an academic point of view. And so, it’s literally impossible to offer everything. And so, for a few reasons, one, we don’t know everything. And two, even if we did, there’s not enough hours in the day. So, we have to be selective of how to approach that. Also, to your point though on technology, it’s not unusual for them to be eager to get to the technology and they want to be hands-on. And our construction surveying layout course, for example, that I’ve taught since I’ve been there, I think has been a really good way to expose students to something that’s not only a technology, but it’s also a very tactile learning experience.

I like to joke that of all the courses in the curriculum, the surveying course is the only one that operates at a scale of one inch equals one inch. It’s not on a computer screen, it’s not on a quarter size drawing or whatever, it’s at scale. Even if the students that take a class like that, even if they in their professional careers, even if they rarely get behind an instrument again, we feel like it has really outstanding value in the college curriculum because it helps the students think through 3D spatial navigation better. We feel like it helps them read section views in the drawings better. If their career takes them to say modelling or laser scanning or something like that, we feel like that having been involved with fundamentals of construction surveying and layout really helps them shape the way they think about that and the way they go through that mental process of taking something that is often two dimensional and making it three.

To your other point about the non-technology-based skills, I think that in this economy, many, if not most, contractors they’re looking for employees in lots of places. And they frequently tell us they wish we could clone some folks and resources and that sort of thing. But by the same token, construction education follows the construction economy. And so, our growth and resources are… We like to kind of flatten things out a little bit and not let the highs be too high and not let the lows be too low. And so right now is a little bit of an unusual situation because construction companies are hiring from construction management programmes from two-year programmes, from civil engineering programmes. They may even cross disciplines and hire from other engineering disciplines, mechanical, electrical. And they may even hire from business majors.

We have probably maybe between 100 and 150 companies that either recruit from our students or are somehow or another engaged in our programme. And while this is an anecdotal conjecture, I suspect if you took the executives of those 150 companies and said, “What are the top two or three things that you’re looking for?” Technology would be important, but it probably comes in behind communication, ability and work ethic. So, in their minds, certainly when the demand is as strong for people, they want to hire people who, if they don’t already know the technology, can learn the technology. That’s something that companies can train. And so, at the moment, certainly the students who have differentiated themselves through electives or minors or some type of programme or credential or something like that, companies are finding that very valuable.

But by the same token, at the end of the day, the construction companies, they’ve got to deliver a product. They’ve got to satisfy contractual obligation. They need people who can talk to clients, administrators, designers, inspectors, subcontractors. But they also need to be able to communicate to craftsmen, labourers, people on the job site, delivery folks or whatever. And so, in that sense, from a communication point of view, I think that builders have one of the widest range of folks that they need to get information to and from. So, it’s really an interesting time that in some ways generationally driven, but at the moment, I think the economy probably plays the biggest role in it.

CG: So, I know at the McWhorter School of Building Science, you have a couple of different emphasis. One of them is on the students and the learning aspect, but you also have a focus on research and on industry. Let’s talk about the research and industry side for a minute. What kind of research is your group involved in at the moment that you find really exciting or engaging?

PH: Sure. Well, maybe I’ll talk about research and innovation first. As part of our academic appointments, Auburn is an R1 institution and so there’s a research expectation as part of our appointment. And there’s lots of ways that our faculty go about that. One way is through a research centre that I am part of the administration of the Centre for Construction Innovation and Collaboration. And it’s a funded entity through which faculty in the School of Building Science can apply for grants and funding for materials, technology, software, travel, funding a graduate student to do work. And the way that that centre picks and chooses, there’s a committee of folks that are both academic and from industry to determine which projects get funded.

And one of the things that in the last two or three years that we have employed is we wanted the centre to have a focus, but we also wanted the focus to be fluid, which is sort of a you can’t have it both ways sort of proposition. In other words, we’d like for the centre to have identity, but by the same token, we certainly appreciate the latitude. So, the way the centre operates is industry actually determines what we call the current construction imperatives. And so that way, what that research work becomes known for is whatever industry thinks is important at the time. And at the time, today, the number one construction imperatives are skilled labour shortage and the use of technology on the job site.

And so, a number of our faculty have current research projects related to the potential for application of technology on the job site. We have guys working on projects associated with virtual and augmented reality. We have folks using laser scanning for data capture on construction projects, but also historic preservation. We have folks working on robotics, using everything from robotic total stations to we’ve invested in a Boston Dynamics robotic dog that has a payload that can carry things like a scanner or other types of devices. And so, as a faculty, we have quite a few folks who are working in that innovation space through funding from the centre. But what I find that’s pretty unique about it is that industry basically decides or guides what our faculty are engaged in on that front. So, I think that’s something that is relatively unique about us, and we certainly have had some success with faculty’s work on that front.

As a segue to the industry piece that you mentioned. I think that, with some bias, I would say that Auburn’s construction management programme, the School of Building Science, we have one of the finest industry engagement relationships out there. We certainly have some peer schools that have really great programmes. Certainly, I’m not suggesting that we’re alone in that boat. But our programme was founded in the 1940s. In fact, Auburn and the University of Florida and a couple of other institutions were the first universities in the country to establish a programme or a major in building construction. And so over time, what that has done is it means that we literally have thousands of alumni graduates from the programme. And that sort of perpetuates itself as those folks become executives with construction companies or start their own companies and so forth. And so, we literally have… I mean, there’s really an unbelievable amount of industry interest and engagement.

We also have a programme of size. We have about 700 students in the School of Building Science at the moment. And I would say 260 of those are in the upper level, the professional programme. Actually, we have more than that. We graduate about 155 a year, so that would put us at over 300 in the professional programme. And one of the hallmarks of the programme is our active engagement in addition to regular coursework. So, our students regularly participate in competition teams, study abroad, service projects, either locally in the community or domestically after storm damage events, and also internationally in South America and other places. And so, there’s all these activities and things for students to do.

And what we find is that industry is very quick to support that, either with personnel or resources or funding or access to job sites. And so, it’s really a great resource that we have that we try to be very mindful and understand that could be something that other programmes may not have. And so, we try to be humble about that as a resource for us. But quite frankly, the number of folks that have come through the programme and then become successful in industry has really enabled us to have industry engagement that helps us in and out of the classroom and in all of these atypical opportunities that students have to do.

Now, we also know that industry is doing that because they’re interested in supporting the construction industry. Maybe there’s some school pride and that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, they’re also trying to hire these guys. Nobody’s getting around, we know what the deal is, we’re trying to make it a mutually beneficial arrangement where we invite the industry in the classroom. Internships, co-op opportunities and all those things are what makes the overall undergraduate experience so rich.

CG: So, it sounds like with the tremendous demand for talent that’s out there right now, if there is a construction contractor or another organisation that would like to partner with Auburn University to make sure that they’re at the top of the list for any new talent that comes out, there are certainly opportunities available.

PH: Oh, absolutely. The competition is pretty stiff, and I think that’s probably true at most construction management programmes across the country and even into civil engineering and other related disciplines. But we do find that the companies that students tend to gravitate to, or at least have interest in seeing what they’re all about as they choose where their career path is going to take them, are the companies that engage while they were in school. So, whether that be through sponsorship or resources or some active learning opportunity or field trips or helping to coach competition teams or whatever the activity might be, there’s always room for more folks in the sandbox.

CG: What most excites you about the future of the construction industry?

PH: Gosh. Well, I guess it’s the change at an increasing rate. We’ve joked around about the fax machine earlier, but to think about how technology and buildings and process and project delivery methods, just the way the contractors operate. Contractors don’t just go get the contract and here’s the bond and build the stuff and see you later. The public private partnerships design-build, IPD, contractors taking equity positions in projects, it really demonstrates how quickly the industry is changing and how construction is really not just a large business, but it is big business. I think I read where in 2021 in the United States we spent 1.6 trillion on construction. And so other than government it’s the largest industry. So, in that sense, it’s really exciting to see how things can and will change so much about the buildings themselves or about the process or about the building systems, new materials, new components, new skin systems, new roofing products, new ways to heat and cool buildings, sustainability initiatives, all of those kinds of things.

And then sort of selfishly in my career, I’m similarly motivated by changes in construction from an academic point of view. And while we have our challenges ahead of us, particularly with how people become educated or get credentials, and the cost of education is probably a different podcast, but by the same token it’s really exciting to be an educator in these times. I think that we’ve come a long way from the one-way street transfer of information. And I think that that’s been kind of a hard cruise ship to turn because construction has been around for thousands of years. And the way that it has perpetuated itself is through the guild and the apprenticeship process. So, in other words, the more experienced people teach the less experienced people what to do, and that’s just sort of the way it goes.

But one thing that technology does is it creates opportunity for mutual and reverse mentoring. So, while I may have experience in contracts and concrete frames and things from an industry career that I can offer the students, the students can help teach me about technology and applications and things about how they approach things. And so, I’m very open to that. And I have two kids of my own and so I see that on a personal level. But it’s really exciting to work with young people. So, looking forward to more years of academia.

CG: That’s such a great perspective. Thank you so much for those insights, Paul. I look forward to seeing how your programme at Auburn University continues to grow.

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