What the Influx of Digital Natives Means for the Construction Industry

Millennials are here to change the construction industry--for good.

Digital natives love their phones
This should look familiar to many digital natives. Tara Moore // Getty Images

A digital native – is that a Kalahari Bushperson with a smartphone? Possibly, but digital native is also a term covering everybody born into today’s digital age. Digital natives have grown up with mobile computing and web-enabled applications. They are the latest generation in the workforce: they like collaboration, have rarely (if ever) set foot inside a bank (thanks to online banking), and wonder why printers still exist, let alone fax machines.

Think the construction industry won’t be affected by them? Think again!

A Binary Approach to Building

Construction management is becoming ever more digital. CAD (computer-aided design) software makes it possible to think out and plan buildings in computers. File sharing and synchronization across the web using cloud-data storage services mean project schedules and plans no longer need to be carried around in rolls of paper. A tablet and Internet or mobile connectivity lets team members access these documents whenever and wherever they want. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is pushing back the boundaries of the digital construction world, joining forces with the Internet of Things for an increasingly connected, smarter way to construct and maintain buildings.

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

For digital natives, all the above is natural – “Why would you want to construct things any other way,” they ask.

For those who have been in the construction industry rather longer however, these new approaches require more effort to digest. Marc Prensky wrote about both categories of employees in his seminal paper of 2001 entitled, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” Yes, you’ve guessed. Digital immigrants refer to those born into a non-digital age, and now making their way into today’s cloud, analytics, mobile, and social networking (CAMS) environment as best they can.

They are the foreigners in this new digital landscape, immigrants with quaint habits like printing out their emails or trying to get everybody into the same physical room for a construction project status meeting.

What Digital Natives Will Do for the Construction Industry

Adjectives applied to digital natives vary from overconfident, independent, and wary of the establishment, to liberal, optimistic, and entrepreneurial. On this basis, you can expect them to question conventional practices, consider colleagues without smartphones to be outdated, and check the web to see if you are telling the truth. On the other hand, they have ideas that could profitably shake up the construction business. They are unfettered by preconceptions about what should or should not be. On the condition that they can access intuitive construction software applications (no help manuals, please – apps should be intuitive), they will be able to explore possibilities via virtual reality and the digital world hitherto unimagined by “traditionalist” construction managers and workers.

What the Construction Industry Will Need to Do for Digital Natives

Notwithstanding longer life expectancy and later retirement ages for other generations, digital natives will soon be by far the biggest part of the total workforce on the planet.

Construction companies will be vying not only among themselves, but also with other sectors, to attract and retain digital native talent. What will draw digital natives to your construction company? Interesting work and up-to-date technology are natural candidates, together with a competitive salary. However, another current of thought suggests that a further factor will be both new and important. It’s time. Digital natives think that time is worth more than money. They make lifestyle choices such as marrying and founding families later in life, in order to have more time to do the different things they want to do. Facilitating remote working, letting them set their own hours, and offering extended vacation time are all likely to go down well for these reasons.