The Straits Times says

Writing on the wall for low-tech builders

The construction sector has long been associated with the sweat, mud and grime of taxing physical work. It's little wonder, therefore, that it has failed to draw locals who like to work with their hands and get satisfaction from building, but not under Stone Age conditions. Proper tools and materials, safe operating procedures and inventive fabrication methods could attract more to the sector. Greater reliance on skilled workers and modern technology would certainly lead to far better results. Costs would be higher, of course, but the results would gleam, and building systems would function efficiently and perhaps reflect many green features. But the construction sector has instead seen a race to the bottom, fed by the availability of cheap foreign labour. Consequently it has yet to join the upward trajectory which almost every other economic sector has embarked on.

Now there is hope that transformation is on the way. Singaporeans joining the building and construction industry can soon expect to be involved with digital design and cutting-edge technology which prioritises productivity and innovation over manual work. The target is to have 80,000 personnel, trained in such technology, to enter the industry by 2025, up from the 32,600 trained in these areas currently. Achieving the higher numbers would represent one of the triumphs of the newly launched Construction Industry Transformation Map. The infrastructure of tomorrow will depend on the advanced skills of a new breed of builders.

While skilled local labour plays a vanguard role in the industry, progress will also hinge on the employment of more productive construction methods. Here, the focus has fallen on Design for Manufacturing and Assembly. This construction method seeks to enhance productivity by moving work which was traditionally done onsite to an offsite factory environment. The goal is for adoption of the method in 40 per cent of all projects by 2020. Digitisation of construction processes is being planned in such a way as to help smaller firms, which might not be able to develop software.

Competition is natural in any industry, but commercial collaboration is critical to the future of an industry that builds Singapore's physical infrastructure. Firms that can work well together stand to also benefit immensely from geo-economic developments, such as China's Belt and Road Initiative, whose transformative path passes through South-east Asia.

The construction industry must latch on to those opportunities. There will be pressure on costs and the need to raise finance in the short term, but challenges created by necessary forces of change can be met. Raising productivity levels in this sector will make the difference between lingering in a departing past and lunging towards an innovative future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'Writing on the wall for low-tech builders'. Print Edition | Subscribe