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Industry Updates

Digital Tools Can Help an Aging Workforce

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The construction industry is struggling with two overlapping problems; local municipalities who are already challenged to operate in a post-COVID-19 world must now confront the risk that their aging workforce will not feel safe performing duties as they have in the past. Worker safety concerns are colliding with budget cuts, risking permitting backlogs and project delays for developers. If these problems are unaddressed, they are likely to manifest in layoffs and delays in tax revenues for the city; increased carrying costs, safety concerns and more project risk for developers; and incomplete projects and slowed economic recovery for the community.

One major problem that cities face is that their workforce is older and more at risk than the population generally.  Aging workers can and may decide to retire, or they might want additional workplace protections in order to come to work at all.  This trend is particularly noticeable in city building departments.  The average age of code officers is around 62 years of age with 85 percent of inspectors and plan examiners above the age of 45.

Even before the pandemic, 80 percent of code officials were expected to retire in the next decade, according to a report done in 2014 by the International Code Compliance Officers. The dangers of COVID-19 on older populations has the potential to accelerate the workforce shortage. In addition, state and local tax revenues have declined significantly due to massive layoffs and the shutdown of most retail activity, leaving revenue from buildings and real estate taxes more important than ever. This one-two-punch is forcing city building departments to do more with fewer workers and less budget.

How can cities protect workers and still perform their regulatory duties?  We work with more than 1,000 cities across the country, and we believe that a series of readily available digital tools can help keep older workers safe and in the field longer by reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. While many industries have been made more efficient by the use of digital tools, the code industry has lagged behind.  Many municipalities have yet to embrace these tools despite the fact they can improve efficiencies which are needed in a workforce that is rapidly aging with few younger candidates in the pipeline. 

The most obvious tool for social distancing is virtual inspections. Virtual inspections connect the inspector to the job site where they can tour and see the work as the contractor walks the site with a smartphone, tablet or other video streaming platform. Despite their ability to keep workers safe, city building departments have been slow to move on this innovation. Currently, 93 percent of building departments say they are still conducting inspections; however, 61 percent say they do not have the capabilities to conduct remote or electronic inspections.

Digitizing the plan submission and plan review processes is another way city building departments can leverage technology to help expedite projects while keeping workers safe. As of now, 60 percent of jurisdictions do not possess digital plan submission capabilities. As the medical and scientific communities debate the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting before the end of 2020, preparations can be made to help minimize this expected disruption. 

Given the number of critical employees working remotely, the time is now to transition to a digital, remote plan review process. For traditional plan submission, paper copies of plans must be delivered to building departments at city or town halls. This traditional system can potentially endanger government employees by drawing more people into municipal buildings. Additionally, as studies show the virus can live on paper for up to five days, anyone handling the plans is at risk of getting sick. Many cities have mandated a five-day quarantine period for all physical copies of building plans. Using digital tools such as email, secure online portals, or cloud-based file drops, you eliminate the need to ship and handle paper, reducing the risk of coming in contact with anything or anyone who has the virus.  

Digital tools also can improve recruitment to the profession overall, which is desperately needed to ensure there isn’t a major workforce shortage. Millennials frequently want to live and work in major cities. Using virtual inspections and digital plan reviews, inspectors don’t have to travel to job sites daily and can more easily work remotely.

These digital tools have many advantages and will boost the efficiency of building departments which will be critical to address the future shortage of experienced code professionals. For cities and municipalities that need to quickly scale up or digitize their building departments, private provider services can easily step in and augment their services using digital tools that help keep workers safe, increase efficiency, speed up inspections, reduce backlogs and increase revenue for municipalities.

Joe DeRosa is chief revenue officer for SAFEbuilt.

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