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Virginia Tech wins $450K grant for modular workforce development

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Virginia Tech hopes a new grant will help it streamline construction in order to address the affordable housing crisis in Central Appalachia.

The Blacksburg, Virginia, university announced last month that the Virginia Center for Housing Research in the college of engineering has received a $453,742 grant, along with the school’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement.

The grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission will aid the Virginia Tech-led team to “develop a comprehensive workforce training strategy” for modular construction, which the school says will reduce cost, waste and emissions over traditional construction while providing affordable housing.

The team hopes to address the labor shortage by bringing middle and high school students to local factories and jobsites, in hopes of developing workers with future careers in construction — specifically modular.

“Providing students an up-close look at the careers available in industrialized construction can create a tangible connection between classroom learning, real-world applications and their future,” Sarah Lyon-Hill, associate director for research development for the CECE, said in the release.

After completing the grant, the team can apply for $10 million in implementation funding

“In basic terms, we are developing a circular economy for Appalachia based on housing,” said Andrew McCoy, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. That means the team will study the region’s capacity for offsite construction by looking at past manufacturing operations, ideally leveraging that toward building both a workforce and new residences.

And McCoy said it’s not just residential construction that could stand to benefit.

“The commercial angle is that historically, innovation has flowed down from commercial to residential, with residential lagging,” he told Construction Dive. “There is so much need for residential innovation that we hope to reverse some of that trend.” 

Nonetheless, residential systems often benefit at larger scales, as apartments or single-family homes can lend themselves to repeated designs, while commercial buildings are often one-off and customized. 

Dire need for workers, jobs

Lyon-Hill described Central Appalachia — which encompasses parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, per the U.S. Census Bureau — as “an engine of U.S. industry,” in the release. However, the region has seen economic woes. 

“In the past six years alone, Appalachia has lost over 50,000 mining jobs and 10,000 manufacturing jobs,” Lyon-Hill said.

Construction will inevitably industrialize, predicted Nol Browne, founder of Boston-based ADL Ventures, a venture development firm focused on decarbonization in the building, energy and transportation sectors and the lead industry partner for the grant.

“The construction industry cannot sustain itself the way its key factors are trending,” Browne said in the release. Indeed, the workforce pipeline in Appalachia is diminishing, as demand for affordable housing skyrockets, Browne said.

“This burgeoning gap between the supply and demand is exacerbated by evolving economic and social challenges such as the rising cost of materials, supply chain issues, a skilled-labor shortage and lack of technology integration — just to name a few,” he said.

Supply chain, social challenges and rising costs all worsen that. Members of the grant team said workforce training is key to success.

“Even if we were to replace a large percentage of workers with robots, we would still have a labor crisis, the demand and need are that severe,” McCoy told Construction Dive. 

As a result, he said, the industry must increase the ability to deliver projects without “compromising” the existing workforce and also upskill those in the industry to provide them with job security, such as increased education on modular project delivery.

“One added bonus will be if we can convince parents — and their kids — of what an exciting, opportunity-filled, promising career construction could be,” McCoy said.

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