Expert: Addressing skilled labor needs in Houston — including the role technology plays

Proactively engaging in advocating for opportunities within the industry across all job levels is essential to guaranteeing a consistent influx of skilled workers, meeting the growing construction demands of both our state and nation. Photo via Getty Images

The construction industry in the U.S. is experiencing a substantial demand for skilled workers. There are over 438,000 job openings, and this demand is projected to increase, aiming to attract over half a million workers to meet the upcoming labor needs.

The urgency is heightened as a significant percentage — more than 40 percent — of the existing workforce is expected to retire within the next eight years.

To top it off, Texas is the fastest growing state with more than nine million new residents between 2000 and 2022. With a growing population, the requirement for robust infrastructure, encompassing various sectors like transportation, health care, education, and residential development, continues to escalate. Encouraging careers in construction among the younger generation becomes vital for everyone, no matter their industry, to meet these demands and bridge the deepening skills gap.

Viable Career Path: Attracting the next wave of construction talent involves dispelling misconceptions about the industry. Many young individuals might not realize the breadth of opportunities available in construction beyond traditional manual labor. I personally gained interest and experience in the industry at a young age before navigating through a few IT careers, and then landed back in construction and worked my way up, which exemplifies the diverse career paths within the industry.

Education and training play a pivotal role in molding the future workforce. Highlighting that formal education isn't the sole path to success, apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs emerge as excellent alternatives, providing hands-on learning experiences while earning a wage. Collaborating with educational institutions and organizations at an early stage can introduce students to the industry's diverse career avenues.

As with every industry, diversity encourages innovation. Business leaders who intentionally recruit from underrepresented groups, including women and minorities, within the industry will reap countless benefits.

Innovative Technologies: Showcasing the innovative and technological aspects of the industry, such as precision tools, drone technology, AI, and virtual reality, underscores the creative and forward-thinking nature of construction careers. The construction industry continues to evolve and become technologically advanced. The need for cutting-edge individuals who possess construction skills with an understanding of technical innovations will transform the industry.

Stability: Highlighting the industry’s stability, competitive compensation, and the promising opportunities for career growth can further attract potential candidates. Advocating for stringent safety measures and emphasizing the importance of sustainable building practices introduces an added layer of social responsibility, capturing the attention of those committed to ensuring a secure work environment.

Ultimately, the collective efforts of the current workforce and today’s business leaders are pivotal in addressing the imminent skills gap that stands to affect us all. Proactively engaging in advocating for opportunities within the industry across all job levels is essential to guaranteeing a consistent influx of skilled workers, meeting the growing construction demands of both our state and nation.

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Randy Pitre serves as the vice president of operations for Skanska USA Building’s North Texas and Houston building operations.

This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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