Recent regulations, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), have paved the way for incredible opportunities—and funding—for the engineering industry.
Members of the new 2023-2024 ACEC Executive (ExCom) Committee agree that to make the most of these exciting prospects, the industry will need to continue efforts to attract new talent and inform more stakeholders about the role that engineers play in improving our world.
Many firms have not seen the full boost from the IIJA and the IRA just yet, but the industry is braced for the flood of new work that those opportunities—worth a combined $1.2 trillion—will bring. The IIJA alone could add more than 82,000 jobs in the engineering industry.
“There’s a lot of funding there,” says ACEC Chair Jay Wolverton, chief growth officer and executive vice president at CHA Consulting, Inc. “But there were a lot of programs that needed to be stood up as well. It has taken the federal government a little while to get everything in place such that they can start spending that money. But everyone believes that 2024 to 2026 are going to be well-funded years for engineering.”
Vice Chair Thomas Cascino, vice president in transportation at AECOM, says that as he travels across the country, he hears about record infrastructure spending for both the public and private sector markets.
“One of the greatest opportunities for our industry is the rehabilitation, and in some cases the reconstruction, of our aging interstate highway system, including the addition of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, managed-use lanes, and choice lanes in some states,” Cascino says. “Clean water project spending is also seeing record growth, as evidenced by multiple megaprojects underway across the country.”
Taking advantage of those opportunities is going to require engineering firms to make investments in their people and their technology, says Chair-Elect Dr. Gary W. Raba, PE, chief growth officer at Raba Kistner, Inc.
“It’s all about growing and getting better,” he explains. “That’s growing the capabilities of your people and company. Technology is changing, and it’s driving faster change in our profession.”
That’s more important now than ever before. The median backlog of projects at ACEC member firms is now 11 months, and more than two-thirds of ACEC member firms expect to increase their backlog of projects over the next year.
“I believe that the industry is at a generational inflection point,” says Vice Chair Derek L. Clyburn, president of ECS Southeast. “Leaders at all levels in the engineering industry have the opportunity to be recognized as complex problem-solvers due to the essential value and impact that our industry makes on society. The engineering industry will be the driving force to deliver the IIJA so that our infrastructure systems can be improved and ready for continued, sustainable growth.”
Clyburn adds that the engineering industry will also pave the way for additional economic development projects in the renewable energy and electric vehicle spaces and the reshoring of manufacturing jobs.
Vice Chair Elizabeth Stolfus, president, Stolfus & Associates, has a similar outlook. “The engineering industry connects community values with tangible outcomes,” she explains. “We are uniquely positioned to respond to the many pressures the world is experiencing by delivering lasting infrastructure that works for everyone, reduces climate effects, restores damaged and neglected places, and responds to today’s needs,” Stolfus continues. “In partnership with public and private sector clients, we have the opportunity to deliver safer, more effective transportation networks, buildings, energy, water systems, and so much more.”
To make the most of the next decade, the industry will need to significantly grow its ranks, says Vice Chair Dan Meckes, board chair at Crawford, Murphy & Tilly. “There’s plenty of work out there right now,” he says. “We’re all busy, but it’s becoming more difficult to find people. And with inflation combined with the tight job market, you’re going to have to pay higher salaries.”
Senior Vice Chair Janice Marsters, government market leader at Haley Aldrich, agrees that the labor shortage represents the biggest challenge for engineering firms in today’s business climate.
“Across the country, we know that engineering firms cannot find the engineers and project managers they need to serve their clients,” she explains. “With the recent federal funding flowing down to states and counties, we have a great opportunity to make significant strides repairing our country’s aging infrastructure. But we can’t be successful without people to do the work.”
ACEC is advocating for policies and programs aimed at bringing more young people into the industry and to engage and encourage more diversity in the engineering workforce, Marsters says.
In addition to boosting recruiting efforts to attract students to an engineering career, the industry must look at ways to use new technology to help address labor shortages, Meckes adds.
NAECE President Chris Klein also supports the industry’s need to utilize technology. “Meeting the demands for our services and being able to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity presented by the IIJA is a great challenge,” says Klein, president and CEO of ACEC Wisconsin.
“This will require us to maintain or increase the people coming into our field and then keeping them there, as well as expanding our world view to allow more opportunity for nonengineers and embracing technology, particularly AI, in a positive manner that allows the staff that we do have to be operating at the level of their highest and best purpose and at a high level of efficiency. Is there a greater challenge than accomplishing all of this in harmony?”
Another solution, says Chair Emeritus W. Arthur Barrett, senior vice president at Gannett Fleming, is working toward immigration reform to allow more students who study engineering in the United States to remain here and work after graduation.
“If they come in for the education and they can’t get their green cards or an H-1B visa, they end up going back to their home countries,” he explains. “We lose a lot of talent that way. We need some modification to our immigration program that could provide the opportunity for us to retain some of that great talent that has been trained in this country.”
Another key focus for ExCom members this year is making sure that industry stakeholders and the public have a better understanding of the importance of the work of engineers.
“We have to lift the stature of the engineering profession,” Wolverton says. “We have for too long taken a back seat, letting others dictate how we are going to be paid by the hours that we work, instead of by the value that we bring to the project. No one is going to beat our drum or fly our flag. We have to do it ourselves.”
“The addition of the ACEC Research Institute has raised our value to the next level,” says Klein. “I’m excited we now have members who are anxiously waiting for the next ‘big thing’ coming from that arm of the organization.”
Events across the country are aimed at highlighting engineering projects, including the recently launched Engineering & Public Works Roadshow, created by ACEC in partnership with the American Public Works Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s a good step in the right direction when it comes to spreading awareness, says Vice Chair Ralph Guida IV, president of Guida Surveying.
“We need to break out of that shell, be out front, and yell from the rooftops what we do for society and how our businesses give back to our communities,” he says. “We don’t tout that loud enough or hard enough.”
“The 2023 ExCom brings a unique variety of skills and perspectives, which will be extremely valuable for the Council as we move forward,” says ACEC President and CEO Linda Bauer Darr.
With a focus on attracting new talent, utilizing technology, and advocating for the profession, the 2023-2024 ExCom aims to accelerate growth, address labor shortages, and elevate the stature of engineers.
Beth Braverman is a business writer based in New York.
JAY WOLVERTON, CHAIR“Don’t hesitate. The reward will be much greater than you can imagine. I have met some phenomenal people in the industry from all over the country and across many different engineering disciplines while serving at ACEC.”
DR. GARY W. RABA, PE, CHAIR-ELECT“Engage and speak your mind. Everyone has an opinion, and the diversity of opinions and thoughts is what’s important at a national level. Silence is not a course of action, but speaking up and sharing your ideas is definitely a way to improve the profession as a whole.”
THOMAS CASCINO, VICE CHAIR“I have and will definitely continue to recommend that interested ACEC members consider running for the Executive Committee, which is a very rewarding two-year commitment. I would also recommend they consider joining one of the coalitions or a volunteer committee in an area of specific interest to that member. Once members get engaged, they see the tremendous value ACEC brings to every member firm.”
RALPH GUIDA IV, VICE CHAIR“The camaraderie you would receive is greater than you could imagine, as are the knowledge, resources, and education you get when sharing with colleagues.”
DEREK L. CLYBURN, VICE CHAIR“Do it! Committee involvement and serving in committee leadership will provide you a glimpse of some of the great work that is being done at the national level and help prepare you for the process of pursuing a vice chair leadership role.”
DAN MECKES, VICE CHAIR“The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. The relationships that you develop with not just people within the ACEC industry but also elected officials, decision-makers, and clients—you learn so much through that process. Some of the relationships you develop are lifelong relationships and people that you call friends.”
JANICE MARSTERS, SENIOR VICE CHAIR“Having participated in leadership in ACEC at both the state and national level for more than 25 years, I know I’ve gotten more out of it than I put in. From leadership development to lifelong friendships with ACEC colleagues, participation has been one of the most meaningful aspects of my career.”
ELIZABETH STOLFUS, VICE CHAIR“Join in! Your energy, ideas, background, and experience are needed.”
W. ARTHUR BARRETT, CHAIR EMERITUS“Take the first steps. You get more out of ACEC than you put into it—but you have to put something in to get the reward out. Be engaged in some of the state and national committees. If you’re at the state level, get engaged with clients and with other firms and build upon that.”
CHRIS KLEIN, NAECE PRESIDENT“There are nearly 600,000 members of ACEC. If you can’t be one of the nine who serve on the Executive Committee, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. Lead in your state. Lead on a national committee. Your commitment will make you stronger, your state stronger, and our industry stronger. Now go do it!”
DANIEL LARSON, TREASURER AND VICE CHAIR“Do it! It is an exceptionally rewarding experience that enhances your professional development, builds relationships that last a lifetime, and contributes to society in a way few professions can.”