Video game-like tech draws younger, more skeptical workforce to construction

Construction Dive

Mittie Cannon, founder of an Alabama nonprofit construction training program for girls, knows that a job in the trades offers many perks: good pay, job satisfaction, the ability to work as part of a team and opportunities for advancement. But those incentives are not always enough to attract young women to the construction industry, which they see as dirty, tiring work that’s more appropriate for men.

Interactive technology is helping to change their minds. Through support from local businesses and ABC chapters, Cannon’s Power UP Loud program offers weekly workshops in middle schools focused on topics like plumbing, electrical and site work. In addition to traditional training, the girls experience the industry via simulators and VR headsets that mimic some of today’s most popular video games like Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console and the Sony PlayStation.

The young students — digital natives accustomed to using technology in nearly every facet of their lives — have a good time trying out simulators for activities like crane operation, excavation and welding, Cannon said, but the experience is more than just fun and games. By seeing firsthand that construction work involves high-tech skill more than physical prowess, some girls begin to envision it as career.

“Technology gets the kids excited,” Cannon told Construction Dive. “It’s something in a child’s mind that they can relate to.”

Cannon is hoping that excitement will translate to future jobs for the girls, most of whom are in the eighth grade. “We relate technology to how the students can do this and make a great living,” Cannon said. “When you tie it to a career it’s definitely a selling point.”

An eye-opening experience

Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Carrollton, Georgia-based Crane Industry Services, brings her firm’s portable simulator machine to local college and career academies to help job seekers experience what it’s like to be a heavy equipment operator. The Vortex unit from CM Labs in Montreal, Canada, can be programmed with load movements that mimic different real-world scenarios.

“It’s so eye-opening to them,” she told Construction Dive. “They’re like ‘Oh my gosh I had no idea this is what it’s like to operate a crane.’”
Women especially are surprised to find that operating a huge piece of equipment doesn’t require exceptional strength, and many users like the fact that the experience is similar to popular video games, with a joystick and foot pedals, Dickinson said. “People who are comfortable with video games are very comfortable with the simulation technology,” she said.

Construction companies are using the technology to not only attract but also evaluate candidates, Dickinson added. Simulators are helpful for checking out potential hires without tying up expensive equipment or supervisor time.

“You can see how expensive it would be to screen someone on a piece of crane equipment that costs anywhere from $30,000 to several million dollars,” she said. “You can’t let them loose by themselves without a certified operator, it would be too dangerous.”

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