If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you’ll notice a trend in the average age of its code professionals. A report released in 2014 by the International Code Council (ICC) listed the average age of the profession as 62 years of age with 85 percent of inspectors and plan examiners above 45, and there is no question the average age is even older today. We’ve also seen this firsthand with older applicants far out-numbering younger ones, suggesting that younger workers are not joining the profession. Even before the pandemic, 80 percent of code professionals were set to retire within the next 15 years, and unless businesses and building departments take action, the current COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate this trend. At SAFEbuilt, we’ve seen how the right technology can enable an aging workforce to continue working past average retirement age by reducing the risk of illness, eliminating the physical requirements for the job, and improving quality of life through the reduction of travel time. 


While 93 percent of building departments say they are still conducting inspections, 61 percent say they do not have the capabilities to conduct remote or electronic inspections. Given the average age of inspectors and the disparate impact COVID-19 has had on older Americans, the fear of catching the virus while on site is especially acute for this group, and may push inspectors to retire early, take a leave of absence, or to delay or cancel inspections when possible. With no end in sight to the pandemic and few younger professionals to fill the ranks, building departments and developers alike are bracing for a potential slowdown in permit approvals and inspections, thus increasing project length and costs.

At SAFEbuilt, our number one priority is safety through attention to detail in applying the codes and standards we review and enforce on a daily basis. For almost 30 years, we have worked with more than 1,100 communities nationwide, as well as the nation’s top five home builders, to come up with new ways to perform plan reviews and commercial or residential inspections that consider the challenges that both code officials and developers experience in the field. With this current pandemic, the industry has to ensure an older workforce stays safe while not delaying projects indefinitely. In Florida, we saw how this played out firsthand. As a result of stay-at-home-orders that affected our workforce above the age of 65, many of our projects could have been delayed had our code officials not been able to conduct remote plan reviews. 


Remote inspections provide the best of both worlds by giving older workers the ability to inspect jobsites from a safe location. An additional benefit is the elimination of travel time to and from sites, allowing inspectors to “visit” more jobs. Virtual inspections connect the inspector to the jobsite where they can tour and see the work as the contractor walks the site with a smart phone, tablet, or other video streaming platform.

After testing and using this technology in the field for more than 2 years with certified project managers, inspectors, and plans examiners, we have been able to determine what inspection types it works for best. Additionally, we are working with ICC to ensure we continue to meet code standards. By knowing what types of projects are best suited to virtual inspections, we are better able to protect our workforce by dramatically limiting the number of inspectors we send out to jobsites.


Digital plans submission is another way we can leverage technology to help expedite projects while keeping workers safe. As of now, 60 percent of jurisdictions do not possess digital plan submission capabilities. For traditional plan submission, paper copies of plans must be delivered to building departments at city or town halls. This traditional system can potentially endanger government employees by drawing more people into municipal buildings. Additionally, as studies show the virus can live on paper for up to 5 days, anyone handling the plans is at risk of getting sick. Many cities have mandated a 5-day quarantine period for all physical copies of building plans. Using digital tools such as email, secure online portals, or cloud-based file drops, you eliminate the need to ship and handle paper, reducing the risk of coming in contact with anything or anyone who has the virus. 

Digital plan reviews have an added bonus of being more convenient by saving a trip to the building department while enabling the customer to submit plans at any time of the day. They also more easily comply with record retention laws, allow plans to be easily stored and searched, and promote collaboration among departments. Once submitted, digital plans can be routed to a qualified inspector, thus reducing backlogs and related delays. Speed is especially critical now as a quarter of building departments recently surveyed have reported seeing an increase in plan submissions for temporary occupancy and/or temporary structures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To help expand services to fight the coronavirus pandemic, many healthcare facilities have proposed putting beds in alternative locations (like school gymnasiums, hotels and conference facilities, outpatient surgical centers) or installing temporary structures in their parking lots. It goes without saying that the ability to inspect these new temporary healthcare facilities virtually is critical to ensure workers aren’t exposed to the virus and the facilities are up to code. 


Digital tools that enable projects like these and help keep the code inspector workforce safe, are especially crucial now as cities think about how to address their budget shortages at a time when they and their workers are being asked to do more with less. Through forward-thinking public and private partnerships that leverage digital tools and remote capabilities we can help improve the efficiency of busy building departments by helping them add additional digital and remote capabilities along with staff fluent in using them. 


Through the use of digital tools, building departments can ensure their workers stay safe and healthy during COVID-19 by reducing person-to-person contact and thus they will be more likely to continue working. Going forward, it is critical that these digital tools get more widespread adoption so that cities don’t have to risk the health of their inspector workforce. These digital tools have many advantages and will boost the efficiency of building departments, which will be critical to address the future shortage of experienced code professionals. For cities with staffing shortages or workers who are reluctant to switch to digital code inspections or plan reviews, private provider services like SAFEbuilt can help cities keep workers safe and projects moving. 

About the author

Joe DeRosa is the chief revenue officer of SAFEbuilt. Joe and his team are responsible for all aspects of revenue growth for SAFEbuilt. Joe is a global sales and marketing executive with experience in industries including SaaS, FinTech, FinServ, Insurance, Telecom, Manufacturing, and Industrial. Founded in 1992, SAFEbuilt supports municipal governments and public and private corporations with community transformation services, including expert and professional community development, infrastructure, and maintenance services to over 1,100 communities across 24 states. SAFEbuilt offers customized solutions that are built to fit its client’s development needs including stabilizing budgets, maximizing efficiencies, improving customer services, and adaptable staffing. For more, visit www.safebuilt.com.

Modern Contractor Solutions, May 2020
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