It’s no secret that America has an aging infrastructure problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) critiques these needs and issues an annual report card for our nation’s infrastructure. In 2017, our nation’s infrastructure, including schools, roads and transit, earned a “D” grade. Each year the outlook has grown dimmer as our infrastructure ages and funding lags. State-by-state grades are also issued by ASCE, with the state of Washington earning an overall “C” grade. In the state of Washington, approximately 400 bridges are “structurally deficient,” at least 31 percent of all roads are in “poor” condition, and over a billion dollars are needed to satisfy school infrastructure needs. Our neighbors in Oregon and Idaho have similar challenges. These infrastructure needs will exacerbate with time, as will the price tag.
The Trump administration’s plan
President Trump has promised to revitalize America’s infrastructure, stating “The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding. Our roads, our bridges, our tunnels, our highways, our airports, schools, hospitals – we’ll rebuild everything.” Frankly, leadership in this arena is long overdue and America needs these investments, but the path to better schools, roads, bridges, tunnels, dams and transit is not paved with dollars alone. All of those projects require engineers – lots of engineers – and that might actually be the biggest challenge.
The current state of affairs
The engineering industry is swamped. The current demand for engineering services exceeds what the engineering industry can accommodate. Engineering salaries are quickly rising as engineering firms scramble to keep their current employees and attract new ones, usually at the expense of another firm. Many engineering firms are so backlogged they defer new projects far into the future, are extremely selective as to which projects they accept and with which clients they choose to work, and some firms currently decline to accept new projects.
The Great Recession saw a migration of engineering talent out of the industry, leaving the remaining engineering firms unable to adequately satisfy our nation’s current engineering needs. Engineering services fees are rising and project schedules are lengthening. Some building owners, architects and contractors have acquiesced to this “new normal,” while others still find the current conditions frustrating.
President Trump’s infrastructure plan, while addressing a chronic and important need, is likely to exacerbate the current challenges facing the engineering industry. Infrastructure projects are often large with long schedules and big budgets – a perfect recipe for consuming enormous engineering resources. The firms awarded these projects will need a virtual army of engineers to complete the work. Where will all of these engineers come from? New college graduates and foreign nationals will likely shoulder some of this load, but the large majority will have to be addressed by the current engineering talent pool. As engineers migrate toward these new public works projects, private sector project owners, contractors and architects will find an increasingly difficult environment to procure and retain engineering services. Engineering fees will continue to rise and project schedules will continue to lengthen.
What can be done?
Simply put, the engineering industry needs more recruits. Our nation would do well to support and encourage many more college students to pursue engineering degrees. As the free market works to equilibrate between supply and demand, the engineering industry will become increasingly attractive to prospective engineers. In the meantime, we’re forced to do the best we can with what we have. Engineers are finding ways to work more efficiently, coupled with longer hours, to meet the demands placed upon them. Procurers of engineering services are collaborating with engineers, accepting longer schedules and higher fees and fostering relationships to ensure their projects receive attention.
The current engineering industry is under pressure, with more on the way. But like the pending renewal of our nation’s infrastructure, the engineering industry can also revitalize and emerge stronger to meet our nation’s technical needs.
Brandon Erickson, PE, SE is principal of Erickson Structural Consulting Engineers PC, located in Vancouver. His practice focuses upon structural assessment, rehabilitation and renovation of existing building structures. Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.571.5577.