At a recent meeting for NARI of Eastern Massachusetts, I had an opportunity to revisit the topic of how the construction industry might solve the skilled labor shortage. This is a topic I had written a think-piece about How Will Construction Solve Its Skilled Labor Crisis - an article I was moved to write because the answers I keep hearing always point to technology as the solution.

I'm no Luddite. I am as intrigued as anyone is by 3D-printing as a way to make houses, and by off-site construction techniques that are getting increasingly sophisticated at producing high-performance building components. The potential for harnessing technology to make better homes is astounding. But I'm also realistic, and I don't believe anyone will be ordering up a full-size family home from Amazon and having it shipped to a site anywhere in the U.S. with drones. Such notions are the Emperor's new clothes. So are the mouth-watering predictions of how many billions of dollars can be made with investments in off-site construction methods. Few talk about the number of homes actually build using new technologies, and the truth is, we are still a long ways out. Currently, fewer than 5% of single-family U.S. homes are built with modular or panelized techniques. And this number has declined from a peak of about 6.7% in 1998. Whether this decline is significant, or just the expected variability of a fledgling industry, the simple fact is that we still have a very long way to go. And that's for new construction.

The remodeling business is far too specialized for automation to have a sizable impact any time soon. Automation works best for repeatable tasks that can be standardized. Already, robots are employed on site for laying brick, like on the back of a mall, where you have hundreds of feet of uninterrupted wall and no punched openings. These machines aren't building the mall facade, much less building or renovating residential buildings. Will laser levels and measuring tools evolve to create faster ways to map- an out-of-level kitchen or spit-out a reliable cut list for a houseful of finishes? Probably. Will connected communications and virtual fly-throughs open up new ways for us to sell to clients? For clients to demonstrate what they want? Or to monitor our work and measure the performance of what we build? Undoubtedly. These exist now and will only become increasingly prevalent. Technology is not our enemy, but it's not our savior either. And when it comes to solving the skilled labor shortage, we won't escape having to bring along the next generation of carpenters.

Instead of asking if technology will solve labor, we should all be asking much more important questions, like: How will we attract young people to our profession? And what are we going to do to repair the perception that becoming a carpenter is a lower-class profession than being a lawyer? Perhaps the most important question of all is: How does the next generation want to perceive our industry? After all, they have the biggest stake in the future of this industry, and if we are able to listen to their response to that question we might be able to affect the change they want to see, and we all need them to be.