If someone could tell what the future held, I should think you would certainly be curious to know about it. However, would you believe what you heard? When I was in college, a guest professor gave a lecture on the future. The year was 1977 and he spoke about things that seemed hard to imagine could come to pass. I remember some of his predictions and the ones that stood out are because they came to fruition.

Grocery Stores

The days of the traditional supermarket would shift. He predicted mega-box stores, forecasting that it would be like shopping in a warehouse and buying items in bulk. In addition, smaller, specialty grocery stores would be introduced. These would be higher-end products for niche markets—most likely health foods or specialty items.

He asked students about their career goals and I responded construction and design. Entering school with the focus on architecture and coming from a family in contracting, I was curious to what his crystal ball read. He said there would be a major shift in construction practices. “The rise of the consultants,” he called it. This teacher continued to say the trades will suffer with respect to skill and training: The impact will combine with more complexity in design, materials and codes; we’ll see more pre-fabrication and the need for consultants to handle the complexity. I was trying to imagine this futuristic world he spoke of but couldn’t really fathom what he was on about. 

He continued with insight about urban growth, stating that most major cities would just continue to grow. They are born and go through a boom phase. At some point, several inner cities become run down. This occurs as cities push outward to the suburbs. The economically challenged city center will then go through a revitalization of urban renewal process. I grew up near Los Angeles and during that time, Long Beach was a place you would not go after dark. So when I heard a convention would be there—even a long time after—I was sure something bad would happen. When I arrived, I was shocked at how nice Long Beach now is.  

Pay Phones Go Extinct

There are many things that have come to pass that upon reflection I would have not believed possible. When I was young, all the construction workers on tract homes were in the union. Recently, I met with a fellow worker I had not seen in decades and asked him if he would have thought back then that all the homes today would be built non-union. He would have laughed at me, he agreed—just as I had laughed at that professor. 

I think about the unimaginable things that have come to pass and see reminders almost every week. I was in a Texas mall that was beginning to show its age as I noticed the missing bank of public telephones. Pay phones are now an endangered species. Unthinkable back then. I wonder if lathers and plasterers putting up hard wall in the 1960s would believe drywall could knock them out of the market. Actually, I know this to be true because my uncle and father laughed at drywall as joke and would never catch on.  

Energy will likely have an impact on the unthinkable changes. We will design and construct differently to meet demands of net zero energy homes. Will the union return to power as trade skill levels seem to continue to plummet, or will they die out completely? 

Skilled labor is a monumental problem for our future, and it seems our industry must get serious about training or turn to construction of modular units where training craft workers is not critical for a successful project. Many trades have started on that endeavor.

The unthinkable is on the horizon. Being prepared and ready to shift as needed will put you in a better position to survive. Some are going to be just ahead of the curve and likely profit from the unthinkable changes on the horizon.