The leaders of ACEC’s seven coalitions are prepared to deal with an array of market challenges facing the industry, while at the same time looking to leverage new opportunities for business growth.
These coalitions are groups of firms organized by practice. They are the foundation of ACEC and represent each of the organization’s key market sectors. The level of experience and insights they contribute helps ACEC better advocate for their interests in Washington, D.C.
The seven coalitions include the Coalition of American Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, Coalition of American Structural Engineers, Coalition of Professional Surveyors, Geoprofessional Coalition, Land Development Coalition, Small Firm Coalition, and Design Professionals Coalition.
These coalitions are facing a range of challenges, says Ken Brown, Coalition leaders chair and project team leader at CHA Consulting. These include finding and retaining experienced staff at a time when there is a lack of students entering into the engineering field, and dealing with post-pandemic fallout such as the remote work model. “The coalitions are focused on attracting young students into each respective discipline. Scholarships and career fair attendance are a couple of the programs being implemented,” says Brown.
“For employees to be retained by a firm or to stay in the field of engineering, they need to see a pathway to their future.”
JOHN BURNSCHAIRCOALITION OF AMERICAN MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS (CAMEE)SENIOR VICE PRESIDENTBURNS ENGINEERING
At the same time, the coalitions are presented with big opportunities for business expansion. Chief among these are the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a $1.2 trillion bill that is aimed at modernizing the nation’s infrastructure, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which represents the single biggest investment in climate action in U.S. history.
Each coalition also faces its own unique challenges and opportunities, and leaders and members are poised to tackle these as effectively as they can.
“We are seeing an issue with finding enough field staff. Two things we are doing in response to this are facilitating roundtables within ACEC and partnering with other geoprofessional organizations to tackle this issue.”
JEFF GEBHARDCHAIRGEOPROFESSIONAL COALITION (GEO)VICE PRESIDENTBRAUN INTERTEC
The various coalitions are facing a number of business and industry issues, some more urgent than others.
The Coalition of American Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (CAMEE) is focused on two areas: development of qualified engineers and decarbonization of the built environment, says John Burns, chair of CAMEE and the COO and senior vice president of Burns Engineering.
“With a tight labor market and strong demand for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering services, CAMEE is helping member firms advance their technical learning and professional development,” Burns says.
“One of the largest issues we face is a shortage of experienced employees and new employees entering the survey field.”
RICHARD SULLIVANCHAIRCOALITION OF PROFESSIONAL SURVEYORS (COPS)VICE PRESIDENTPSOMAS
Such efforts are imperative for employee retention and for the future of the industry. “For employees to be retained by a firm or to stay in the field of engineering, they need to see a pathway to their future,” he says.
CAMEE will soon release a road map of skills for MEP and fire protection engineers. The publication describes the skills and competencies at each level throughout the career progression. “This tool will allow member firms to easily create development plans for their technical staff and to discuss goals and expectations for career growth,” Burns says.
“Our clients’ capacity to deliver their current capital programs and ongoing operations is starting to show strain due to workforce challenges.”
JOHN EDDYCHAIRDESIGN PROFESSIONALS COALITION (DPC)PRINCIPALARUP
Workforce needs are also a challenge for the Geoprofessional Coalition (GEO). “We are seeing an issue with finding enough field staff,” says Jeff Gebhard, GEO chair and vice president of Braun Intertec. “Two things we are doing in response to this are facilitating roundtables within ACEC and partnering with other geoprofessional organizations to tackle this issue.”
GEO also supports the larger ACEC workforce initiatives such as STEM education and showcasing project award winners to show children the value of the profession, Gebhard says.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a major focus of federal, state, and local governments, Burns says, and mechanical and electrical engineers play a significant role in reducing emissions from buildings. Systems such as lighting and HVAC are designed for energy efficiency, and heating and cooling equipment powered by fossil fuels is being replaced with electric machines, he says.
CAMEE is developing contract language guidance to define the role of reducing emissions for both the engineer and the facility owner. “The engineer should not be liable for fines if the owner is not operating the MEP systems properly,” Burns says. CAMEE plans to collaborate with ACEC’s Government Affairs team to educate them on MEP engineers’ role in decarbonization, so that CAMEE is a resource for government policy and can convey the value of the engineer’s role.
For the Coalition of Professional Surveyors (COPS), the lack of skilled workers is a key challenge.
“One of the largest issues we face is a shortage of experienced employees and new employees entering the survey field,” says Richard Sullivan, chair of COPS and vice president of Psomas.
“We are working on ways to highlight and educate students about the surveying profession at the high school and junior college level, as well as retention of existing staff,” Sullivan says. “We also provide publications for companies to use for training and career advancement.”
The future of the workforce is the dominant topic within the Design Professionals Coalition (DPC) meeting programs and the very large firm roundtable discussions the coalition hosts at ACEC’s annual and fall meetings.
“This topic encompasses increasing the inflow of young, diverse, and inclusive talent; securing higher hourly rates for higher salaries; trialing adaptive ways of working; and promoting the value engineers bring society,” says John Eddy, chair of DPC and principal at Arup. “Our clients’ capacity to deliver their current capital programs and ongoing operations is starting to show strain due to workforce challenges.”
DPC is in the early days of crafting potential solutions such as helping clients manage procurements to better meet their project delivery obligations and operational imperatives, even with limited resources.
Small firms are facing a number of challenges today, including staffing, ownership transition, IT security, and health care to name a few, says Brandon Claborn, chair of the Small Firm Coalition (SFC) and CEO of Meshek & Associates LLC.
“During our CEO roundtables, we share our experiences and learn from one another about how to better manage these issues,” Claborn says. “Specifically, the SFC sponsored a webinar on cybersecurity that was developed for issues facing small firms. We also worked to provide a project management training course designed for small projects in response to feedback from our members.”
The members of the Coalition of American Structural Engineers (CASE) are also facing challenges, which include recruiting, hiring and retaining talent, adapting to a virtual workforce, and preparing for the next generation of firm leaders, says Kevin Chamberlain, chair of CASE and principal at DeStefano & Chamberlain. An effective way to address these is frequent collaboration.
“The best thing CASE does is meet in person twice or more each year for networking and committee work,” Chamberlain says.
During conferences, CASE hosts a roundtable that’s focused on business practice topics of most interest to firms.
“It’s a tremendous benefit to learn what issues are affecting other firms,” Chamberlain says. “Our membership has a diverse range of firm types, sizes, locations, and area of practice, and yet there are a lot of commonalities in the topics people want to dig into.”
The talent shortage is also a challenge for the Land Development Coalition (LDC).
“One of the biggest challenges that is affecting civil engineering firms is the lack of qualified talent to meet demand,” according to Paul Navarro, LDC chair and president and CEO of Navarro & Wright Consulting Engineers. “Over the last several years, low interest rates fueled the surge of real estate projects including residential, commercial, and industrial projects. Also, many municipalities refunded their bonds at lower rates, which gave them infusions of capital to undertake deferred maintenance of public infrastructure.”
In addition, “Our coalition has published several papers on recruiting and retaining talent and adapting to the new hybrid work model that many firms resorted to during the pandemic,” Navarro says. “Much of the remote workforce has now chosen to work from home permanently, which presents other challenges. We regularly share our experiences with the member base on how to best deal with those challenges.”
“During our CEO roundtables, we share our experiences and learn from one another about how to better manage these issues.”
BRANDON CLABORNCHAIRSMALL FIRM COALITION (SFC)CEOMESHEK & ASSOCIATES LLC
Even as they are addressing challenges, the coalitions are taking advantage of the latest trends in the marketplace that create opportunities for business growth and success.
For a lot of firms, the U.S. government’s major emphasis on infrastructure enhancement via the IIJA presents many opportunities.
“We are very excited about the nationwide focus on infrastructure,” Sullivan says. “This has the potential to create new markets as well as boost existing ones.”
The increasing investment in infrastructure at the federal level and in many states is great news for small firms, Claborn says. “We specialize in building relationships with our clients and have solid understanding of local issues,” he says.
“The coalitions are focused on attracting young students into each respective discipline. Scholarships and career fair attendance are a couple of the programs being implemented.”
KEN BROWNCOALITION LEADERS CHAIRPROJECT TEAM LEADERCHA CONSULTING
GEO members also see opportunities from the growing focus on infrastructure improvement.
“The public sector appears to be strong with additional funding from the IIJA,” Gebhard says. In addition, “climate change offers interesting opportunities for geoprofessionals who must deal with resilient infrastructure and flood/drought mitigation.”
LDC members are also excited about the market opportunities due to the IIJA.
“We remain very optimistic that the energy sector will continue to provide opportunities with the electric vehicle movement and the necessary improvements to the electric grid,” Navarro says. “The IIJA proposes to invest heavily on various sectors of infrastructure including transportation, broadband, energy, and climate change, so all these areas require civil engineering as part of their delivery. Our members will play a strong role in making projects in all those areas a reality.”
“One of the biggest challenges that is affecting civil engineering firms is the lack of qualified talent to meet demand.”
PAUL NAVARROCHAIRLAND DEVELOPMENT COALITION (LDC) PRESIDENT AND CEONAVARRO & WRIGHT CONSULTING ENGINEERS
The economy overall is being challenged by inflation, supply chain issues, and rising interest rates, “all things which can chill the construction market,” Chamberlain says. “Despite this, the demand for structural engineering services remains strong and steady. Our members can never seem to hire enough engineers to handle all the work clients want done. With a finite number of structural engineers able to deliver projects, firms are able to be more selective and command the fees they deserve.”
The decarbonization movement also has significant impacts and opportunities for mechanical and electrical engineers, Burns says. Public agencies, private entities, and institutional clients are focused on environment and sustainability initiatives, he says.
“Buildings, campuses, manufacturing plants, and mobility fleets are being retrofitted with lower emission systems to reduce their carbon footprint,” Burns says. “For CAMEE members, this means engineering services for electric vehicle charging, building energy consumption studies, boiler/chiller replacements, high efficiency system upgrades, and many other services. Mechanical and electrical engineers are the leaders in developing and implementing decarbonization solutions.”
“It’s a tremendous benefit to learn what issues are affecting other firms. Our membership has a diverse range of firm types, sizes, locations, and area of practice, and yet there are a lot of commonalities in the topics people want to dig into.”
KEVIN CHAMBERLAINCHAIRCOALITION OF AMERICANSTRUCTURAL ENGINEERS (CASE)PRINCIPALDESTEFANO & CHAMBERLAIN
Environmental issues are also providing opportunities. “At our core, DPC member firms advise our clients on how to select the best paths to achieve their objectives and support them along those paths,” Eddy says. “The climate-driven imperatives of decarbonizing our power supply, bringing water in and keeping water out, and ever hotter and often burning regions of our planet are shaping our clients’ needs and the upskilling we are currently doing to better help them.”
Improving social equity will have an increasingly prominent place in the missions of DPC members’ clients, “and we are working at pace to support their missions,” Eddy says. “Continuing to shed light on solutions that benefit impacted communities will help drive the needed change in project planning and implementation to remedy historic social inequities and prevent new ones.”
Bob Violino is a business and technology writer based in Massapequa Park, New York.