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Can augmented and virtual reality solve the labour shortage?

27th January 2023

Did you know that in my industry, service demand is currently surpassing resource by 50%? I have a few ideas of how technology can be used to solve the labour shortage, and it’s not replacing humans with robots…

This piece of thought leadership was first published in FM UK Online, read my extended version below.

Labour sourcing and the labour shortage is one of the top obstacles for facilities management professionals. There simply aren’t enough engineers available to be called out for jobs. The end of the free movement following Brexit is just one factor affecting the entire UK labour market, together with the aftershocks of the pandemic and early retirement.

It’s estimated there is a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sector: an average of 10 unfilled roles per business in the UK, which is costing the economy a shocking £1.5bn per annum. Additionally, 49% of engineering businesses are experiencing difficulties in the skills available to them when trying to recruit.

In response to the UK labour shortage, it’s become necessary for leaders to offer greater flexibility and to think creatively about their recruitment approach. Also, a lot of companies are simply paying higher wages to attract the talent they want, but this just moves the problem around rather than solving it.

We need to think differently about how to address the problem. Whilst the above factors are important, it’s crucial leaders upskill and reskill existing employees as well, ensuring the expertise is readily available. One way of doing this is through augmented reality (AR), a highly visual and interactive method of presenting digitised information in the context of the physical environment.

AR democratises knowledge and enables connections and information sharing irrespective of physical limitations and distance. The pandemic has catalysed a digital world and the market size worldwide of the AR/VR/MR market is to rise to $300 billion by 2024, so it’s not going anywhere!

What are the benefits of augmented reality?

With AR, the user is totally immersed and has a deep experiential learning experience, meaning they are more likely to recall what to do when a situation or challenge comes up.

Studies have shown that AR and VR can train better than typical classroom learning – this is because practical jobs require fast thinking based on previous experiences, all of which can be gained through simulated learning experiences. This improved learning capability is due to our brain’s ability to build a “memory palace” that organises memories spatially within an environment.

AR is well placed to (re)train engineers in the FM industry and beyond. They can put their learning to the test virtually in the environments where they will be performed. Equally, if an engineer gets called out to do a job they are unsure of, a more skilled engineer can provide live annotations and notes to ensure the job gets done correctly without using more resources and having to call out a different engineer. While initially costly, AR can save training costs and travel expenses as AR sessions can be offered regardless of location, saving both time and money.

AR can train competent people who are able to service the industry

There is a tonne of competent people who have what it takes to fix things. By no means is everyone able to engage in complex jobs but there are a lot of people that can use a screwdriver.

Not every job an engineer gets called up for is complex. Sometimes it only requires a few simple, safe steps that anyone under guidance can do. So that’s where AR and VR can help, to walk everyday people through repairs and maintenance with the help of an engineer virtually or easy to follow videos. This can be done by scanning the environment live through a mobile or tablet to provide real-time assistance. This could save a lot of time and, in turn, alleviate some pressure in the industry by helping reduce the backlog of jobs.

When there’s a shortage of a particular type of expert, technology can help bridge the gap. For instance, a specialist fridge engineer is skilled enough to be able to fix an oven if walked through by another engineer virtually or a video. Two separate specialists on site aren’t necessarily required. It removes all geographical boundaries, talent from another country can help a UK engineer on a job virtually. This not only addresses the issue of engineers not being able to be in two places at once, but it can also reduce their carbon footprint, especially as they can be called to jobs all over the country.

In the midst of FM’s changing work environments, the labour shortage and skills gaps, AR technology could be critical for training and improving operational efficiency and productivity. Not to mention the employee learning experience! AR makes it possible to narrow the knowledge gap, ensuring the workforce of today and future generations have the tools they need to succeed.

Ultimately, AR can be used to upskill and reskill workers to combat the continuing labour shortage.

Read more about how to get the best out of people, and why I give employees 2 hours a week to do nothing.

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