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When Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, he was exploring reality versus illusion and as the play demonstrates, each character has a unique conception of their ‘American Dream.’

It’s a question that remains very much alive today. Almost seven decades on, Miller’s salesman metaphor seems to keep on giving. Had the play been written in today’s world, Miller may have chosen a different role for Willy Loman.

construction Could we substitute tradesman as metaphor? Innovation in construction is driving new processes, product, assemblies, services and the enterprises that deliver them.  Traditional on-site fabrication processes are progressively yielding to off-site fabrication and on-site assembly. What’s old will probably never be new again, at least in construction. Does this spell the end to what might be described as the backbone of the industry, ‘the traditional tradesman?’ We are not talking of those with the highest skills and workmanship pride. They are artisans. There will always be a job for them.

There’s a smarter modern construction era approaching with rapidly changing technologies, fabrications, assembly methods and sources of its parts.  Buildings are expected to be delivered ‘fit for purpose’ and to perform for their life expectancy – at least 50 years with minor attention to their basic fabric.  And, they will need to deliver measurably ‘better construction for less’ to customers.

Traditional construction, with its specialist trades, has ensured that most parts of the construction act singularly and the sum of their efforts does not always add to the whole. This shortcoming has often been accommodated by the retort, ‘but that’s industry standard these days, tradesmen aren’t as skilled as they used to be.’

Construction’s customers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the ways the industry seems able to accommodate underperformance and subsequent compromise.

Construction has a long history with skill sets of the various trades traditionally handed down in a master-apprentice relationship. The documented process of both on-the-job training under the guidance of a licenced tradesman and technical training in specialist technical colleges enables participants in the skilling process to gain a license to practice.

Measurable competencies form the basis for recognition and the process may take some three to six years, depending on the trade. With time and related experience, most licensed tradesmen are afforded the potential for higher wages in comparison to those without or with a lesser skill. More often these days we see a one size fits all model, in job and wage classifications, where once these rites of passage were for the best.

This process once delivered defined ways for a trade and in most cases changes in practice and theory to be incremental and measured. This has served the industry well. The licensing of the various trades gained credibility by way of Acts of Parliament in the various jurisdictions that control the process, with suitable regulatory measures and penalties for breaches under those Acts.

Standard forms of contract have been developed over the years. There are times when, absent from a directly measurable standard, quality is described as ‘in a tradesman-like manner.’ Court cases have rested on the meaning of ‘tradesman-like.’ These decisions are often made by those potentially less versed in what might constitute that broadly variable term. Indeed, it may be argued that with pressures on timing of delivery of projects, competitiveness in pricing, lack of readily available and or qualified tradesmen, the trend to multiskilling and general apathy as to what is acceptable, the term is illusionary as Miller portrays in his Death of a Salesman metaphor.

These contracts and sub-contracts are recommended to be adopted in full, without alterations and/or omissions. In practice, they vary. Small comfort when the intent of ‘tradesman-like’ would arguably be included to invoke positive, higher-capability skill-sets as the base attribute. How can we assume so, without full definition of ‘tradesman-like’ in a generic sense for all trades?

Having said that, even a proper definition would not easily address other issues such as the imbalance in skill, experience and moral aptitude in the supervising ‘master’ or ‘masters’ in the apprenticeship process, nor the firm’s size, the maturity, motivation and dexterity of the apprentice, exposure to on-the-job phase of training, the political and economic climate that dictates college funding and apprenticeship incentives to industry. Critically, it will not address the disruptive nature of today’s transforming industry.

Perhaps the community, the clients, developers, the professions and building practitioners have unwittingly been swept-up in the pace of construction transformation over the last 20 years. With demands to expedite job progress, and in the simple action of accepting work that would, free of timing constraints and the characteristic ‘apportionment of blame’ scenarios, be regarded as unacceptable.

Have they not contributed to the diminution of what once was regarded as a first-rate benchmark? Once the diminished state is accepted, it becomes ‘the new tradesman-like’ in the community, with the resultant ever decreasing spiral to the bottom. But the transforming construction scenario now unfolding embraces the industrialised and quality assured standards applicable to other customer facing industries. ‘Good enough’ is displaced by assured compliance.

The modern construction era now contemplates 40 per cent faster, 80 per cent safer, 80 per cent less waste from avoided on-site fabrication processes and 20 per cent lower cost through improved productivity, driven by smarter use of technology, new supply chain collaborations, and defect-free.

The incremental approach to change that has been accepted over the years, in combination with the reliance on trades-packaging based on independent, specialist-in-the-field, pieces and parts, and in-situ fabrication seems unsustainable. It’s not productive and is not a path to better. It’s never been quantifiable and as such has difficulty defending consistently poor quality output and cost over-runs.

Major industrial and consumer products have, for the past decades, developed with the intention of a worldwide market.  Given the need for “product”,,often led by marketing strategies looking many years in advance, it is common that design development, raw inputs, manufacturing centres and distribution networks are located and potentially shared across the globe. Portions of these inputs will be undertaken in sophisticated, first-world economies and others in the poorest of nations.

Through this prism, we achieve on-going cutting-edge design with an economy of scale making the classic ‘product’ life cycle a very tight. With size and throughput, we can expand on the demand to track and account for product efficiency, minimisation of wastage and energy inputs and the efficiency of distribution networks. Most importantly product quality is tracked and can be assured.

This is the bold new world now re-shaping construction inputs. Countries who ignore these forces do so at the expense of new domestic industries and jobs. The transformation of the construction workforce; both blue collar and professional will not be immune from needing to adapt, and quickly.

Our motor vehicle industry (MVI) is an example of slowness to act and transform. Motor assembly plants were large visible victims of the death of an industry. Construction offers less visible confrontations as its places of assembly are many, and widely spread. But construction’s workforce is larger, and failure to get ahead of the game will impact on our futures in more dramatic ways. This is why Miller’s parody revisited as the ‘death of the construction tradesperson’ is very relevant, now.

Never has the effectiveness of the pre-construction, the construction-delivery and the after-construction continuum been more important to the construction industry. While a new and even more compelling overlay is stamping its foot. Construction is now confronted by seriously joining the digital economy. This is not about just adapting old systems into a digital environment, it’s about reconfiguring construction enterprises, supply chain interfaces, re-imagining basic transactions and their consequent business flows. And then there's the elephant in the room, blockchain technology; crypto-currency real time payment protocols and point to point tracking of compliance certificates, evidenced sourcing and fabrication, assembly and thereafter, during the ‘fit-for-purpose’ post construction phase for the life of buildings. Construction assurance and resilience will be paramount.

Add to this the Internet of Things (IoT) and construction will submit to the ultimate reality of the digitised constructing world converging with the constructed world. Smarter, better construction and use. The makers of construction will embed their digital signatures into the pieces and parts of buildings that will all take on a new purpose during construction formation, delivery and in-service.

Modern constructors will need new insights and capabilities at every level. Some will push back, to ward of what they may call ‘neo-work’, but they will do so at their and the industry’s peril. These are indeed exciting times for those prepared to embrace the alternate. There have never been as many new construction value chain career opportunities.

Tomorrow’s modern construction era will abound with domestic and international prospects that have yet to be fully imagined. The biggest risk will be how long existing institutions defend the status quo at the expense of their people. Yes, tomorrow’s tradesperson will be different to the past. They will embrace new methods of work packaging on and off site. They will be self-performing, self-supervising and highly valued.

Is this new approach feasible? It must if we are to satisfy the future owners and occupiers of tomorrow’s built world. And we can take lessons from the MVI as an example. From a design perspective, every aspect concentrates on design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA). It assumes multi-skilled process workers install each assemblage in a prescribed time as the production flows. The design process works backwards to achieve this output. Complexity is designed out of the production run.

Consequently, more complex items are manufactured off-site and delivered just-in-time. Supply chain platforms may be shared across competitors or different brands within a conglomerate. There is greater systemisation, higher tolerances, inherent repeatability and quality checking and all inputs and outputs are trackable. Quality checking is by way of skilled workers or managers. The less skilled process workers, in time, gain responsibility with training and this becomes the basis for job progression. This is directly applicable to smarter modern construction.

The traditional design process in construction will be looked at differently. This is not a threat to good design and bespoke outcomes. It’s about smart integrated design, it’s not time to be precious.

It will involve optimisation of the assemblage of complex portions of the building, off-site and at some distance. Increasingly foreign sourced, if we fail to act. This will necessitate greater design integrity, greater need for quality checking and compliance in country of destination. On-site assemblage will be time critical. It will not rely on "a less sophisticated technique” as most traditional construction processes currently enjoy; interpreting sketchy details and solving problems not envisaged before starting the project or time-pressured resolution of discrepancies to rectify impairment. BIM and DfMA are not the only silver bullets here. This is systemic and its cultural.

Designers and construction managers should reflect on these challenges as should construction academia and researchers. No one will be immune. Change will be needed in the way contracts and sub-contracts are written. The traditional on-site tradesman’s role will change. If we no longer have tradesmen performing unique and skilled roles on the job, then any reference to installation ‘in a tradesman-like manner’ will be superfluous. In fact, it will be counter-productive to what is needed.

So, will the role of tradesman meet an immediate demise? Not likely, given the stock in the constructed built world. These buildings will need to be re-configured and serviced into the future as economic viability dictates modification. But take heart, the quality and resilience of tomorrow’s built world has a positive outlook. But less heart, by those still in denial and slow to transform.

On reflection, would Arthur Miller’s play, set in today’s context, relate to the plight of the tradesman? We’ll leave that to your conception and only time will tell. Better buckle up!

This article was written in collaboration with Philip Love, Senior Lecturer in Engineering and Construction Management at Western Sydney University.
 
  • Very relevant the only thing that is constant is change the horse replaced by the car horse and cart by truck the tradesman as we know it is pricing himself out of the market and opening the doors to flat pack comstruction

  • Congratulations David. An excellent commentary displaying your typical deep and experienced thinking. Coming from a manufacturing engineering background and over the years gravitating into construction, this rings very true to me.
    Well done

  • Digital design and implementation through construction is a reality. Technology are virtually creating a construction project for quantification, clash detection, manufacturers, client and tradespeople communication. The writing has been on the wall for decades and now is the time to adapt implement and achieve throughput. Robotic construction in controlled environments will see our industry become efficient in the very near future.

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