Most software investments within the project development industry have been geared toward the white-collar developers, architects and engineers, but that doesn't address the biggest cost: labor.
The Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute is teaming up with PlanGrid to address the on-site technology gap, and in turn the skilled labor gap.
PlanGrid is a mobile-first software that allows construction workers to collect, manage and collaborate in real time on drawings, submittals, markups, photos, issues and RFIs. It already has tens of thousands of users — contractors, architects and owners, helping them finish projects on time and under budget.
Mike Hawes is the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute (PNCI).
"Through a collaborative effort in the last year and a half, we've noticed here at PNCI in working with our contractors PlanGrid was starting to be used on a pretty regular basis on the job site," Hawes said. "In an effort for us to help bring our members and carpenters out in the workplace, we reach out with PlanGrid to make sure they have the skills they need to do the job and collaborate with contractors."
PNCI covers Oregon and Southwest Washington, and has a presence in Southern Idaho for training. PNCI has 6,000 members in Oregon and Washington,1,200 of whom are apprentices.
"We're really fortunate in our area right now, we have just seen exponential growth in the demand for carpentry in specifically in Oregon and Southwest Washington," Hawes said. "Obviously that's putting a lot of strain on our contractors and is a great opportunity for us."
The region isn't alone — there are a lot of open skilled positions across the U.S.
"There's definitely a gap right now, a major shortage of skilled workers," Hawes said. "The good news is we're in a great position with the infrastructure we have in place to do the training for both the apprentices and journeymen."
More than 500,000 construction projects have used PlanGrid to build buildings quickly and efficiently.
Emily Tsitrian is the director of consulting and training at PlanGrid.
"Helping close the skill gap is a big part of our mission and vision," Tsitrian told the Business Tribune. "Our partner is an organization like PNCI, which can really bring our technology to the masses in a way we never could. It is really strategic for us and makes sense."
PlanGrid stores more than 50 million sheets of digital blueprints, making it the largest blueprint repository in the world. That translates to more than $85 million saved on papers and printing.
Apprentices come into PNCI to take classes under its continued education program.
"The majority of the workforce is made up of millennials and they come in with a pretty unique set of skillsets when it comes to being tech-savvy already," Hawes said. "We have a major movement right now across the building sector to integrate this technology so it's actually really helping us with recruitment too, so they can see there's a place for them in construction on a daily basis where they can bring tech experience into a workplace."
PlanGrid is a mobile-first software specifically built for people on the jobsite.
"That hasn't existed until we had hardware: phones, tablets exist on jobsites," Tsitrian said. "Building software for these specific types of tablets, we're able to empower the field crews to have all the information they need to build the projects at the tip of their fingers — that has never existed before."
According to Tsitrian, PlanGrid trained the PNCI trainers at a discount, walking them through the courses.
"It's very true to the way these folks like to learn. It's hands-on and in order to be able to teach it hands-on we're giving them free licenses and logins like a real user to practice completing daily tasks. It's such a more effective way to train folks like this than having to go through a webinar or watch a video. By empowering PNCI, trainers and student really get their hands dirty with the software."
For construction companies, it's a culture shift to bring tech to the field instead of keeping it in the engineering and architecture offices.
"With the increase in the use of technology on the jobsite, it's really put us in a position where we want to look at virtualizing our product delivery," Hawes said. "We want to make sure we're in a position to really start modeling what's happening on the jobsite at PNCI."
PNCI invested in huddle screens, 55-inch touch screen in different location on the shop floors.
"They'll be able to have the opportunity to go ahead and interact with the technology themselves as they're going through construction drawings," Hawes said. "We had a trial run here where we had one of the 55-inch touchscreen down on the floor. It was amazing to watch the students flock to that, it's almost innate for them to go up and start interacting with the drawings on the jobsite. Paper blueprints go away."
The technology innovation positions PNCI's carpenters to be as competitive as possible in the marketplace.
"When students are down on the floor, we're basically instructors taking them through the sequence of what they're going to cover that day," Hawes said. "We use huddle screens and integrate BIM, and also use PlanGrid and another program called Blue Beam so the students get to see how this information management is taking place on the jobsite."
It's common for PNCI leaders to have iPads on the jobsite.
"It's really cool because it's helping the efficiency of what takes place on the jobsite immensely — being able to get approvals on information and being able to move documents around and have a lot of people review them," Hawes said. "What used to take literally days on jobsites — requests for information answered, architects approved it, engineers look at it — can now be accomplished in a matter of hours."
Reducing wasted time
Tsitrian told the Business Tribune that PlanGrid can save carpenters up to five hours a day in transitioning to a completely digital environment.
"Think about every time you have to go back and forth to the jobsite trailer to look at a blueprint," Tsitrian said. "Every hour you're building something out of date because the paper hasn't been updated, every hour you have to write down on a notepad — it's really exponential."
PlanGrid tracks production on a daily basis, making it easy for team members to look at what's happening on a job site every day and know exactly where the project is.
"The return on investment people do at PlanGrid is completely out of control, it's almost embarassing to talk about," Tsitrian said. "It's pretty revolutionary and mind-blowing if you think about the amount of work the skilled trades do based off a piece of paper."
Shaving off five hours of a carpenter's day helps them — and the unions — stay competitive.
According to a PlanGrid survey of 345 general contractors, 323 subcontractors, 68 developers and 92 architects and engineers, 32 percent said they saved three to six hours a week using PlanGrid. About 16 percent said they save six to nine hours, 7 percent save nine to 12 hours, and 9 percent save more than 12 hours a week using the tech.
"Skilled labor has been thought of as fixed cost, but this group of workers has not been any more productive in the last 50 years because of the lack of technology," Tsitrian said. "The hardware became available, the perfect opening to create software for these types of workers and help them become more productive."
Hawes said the Great Recession built up demand for capital spending.
"A lot of businesses out there and governments had plans for projects they just basically put on hold completely, so we ended up with a backlog of work," Hawes said. "When things got turned around and the economy started to strengthen everybody came back online. It happened a lot faster than people anticipated."
When apprentices join PNCI, they start at $17 an hour. After six months, they earn a $15 per hour benefit package. After four years, they earn roughly $35 an hour on top of the benefits package.
"The fact is it's a very good living, a livable wage, a good career," Hawes said. "When they're in school, the only thing they're responsible for paying directly is the books. We throw in contributions on a daily basis into a training fund and that pretty much covers the cost of school for them."
While in the education program, they come to school four times a year and are also out working on jobs. They get a raise every six months moving through the program.
"Having a program on the cutting edge like PlanGrid being utilized on the worksite and having a partnership with a major player is helping us not only train our carpenters in the workforce right now, it's helping us attract," Hawes said.
PNCI also works with disadvantaged youth, women and minorities.
"We work closely with those groups. They run what's considered a pre-apprenticeship program," Hawes said. "Folks have training before they come into PNCI and we give them preferential treatment, but they get scored a little harder."
PNCI has a training program called Career Connections. The comprehensive program can take a high school sophomore, work on soft skills like resume building and interview practices, and get them ready to work in specific modules in construction. About 11 high schools in Portland and Southern Oregon have signed up.
"This is so important because over the years a lot of the career tech education programs, like shop and things, had gotten closed," Hawes said. "Now in this situation with huge demand and a skilled worker shortage we're seeing emphasis put back on CTE programs in high schools."
Last year alone, PNCI grew by 42 percent. The low in 2011 was 460 apprentices, and now there are 1,200.
Find out more at PlanGrid
By Jules Rogers
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