“I’ve never been so busy.”
This statement is the recurring theme amongst the trenchless engineering community when asked to reflect on their workload during the pandemic. With federal and state infrastructure funding projected to rise, there is a legitimate concern regarding bottlenecks to convert stimulus dollars from design to construction bids as engineering consultants undertake the additional workload. However, the concern is deeper than simply trying to work through a surge of projects.
In certain ways, the consulting community was prepared for the abrupt changes brought on by the pandemic. Trenchless work, in general, requires many of our engineers to be nomadic because our projects are rarely centered in a specific geography for a long period of time. This meant we already adapted to working while traveling and we were early adopters of the great remote technology that the rest of the world has come to appreciate. One of the most positive changes has been more of our public owner clients making remote technology commonplace for their staff too. This has allowed more flexibility in executing design work as teams can choose to be in-person, virtual, or a hybrid of the two. With these positive aspects in mind, there are several factors that must be addressed amongst the engineering community moving forward.
There is no way to eliminate the need for construction observation by trenchless engineers during construction. This fact will always hold true because understanding constructability requires “real world” knowledge that only burns into your engineering-brain when you see it firsthand. Unfortunately, COVID-19 protocols implemented on jobsites around the world drastically limited onsite visitors and slowed down the feedback loop which transfers construction knowledge to the designer. Young and mid-level engineers’ on-the-job education has suffered because of excessive time spent in their kitchens instead of in the field. Further, less in-person interaction amongst peers has meant less opportunity to share the informal, gritty lessons learned from our projects. Now that it has become safer to do so, our entire industry will benefit from contractors and owners relaxing on-site restrictions and providing more on-site observation. Additionally, the entire industry will benefit from conferences, brown-bag presentations, and short courses all resuming in haste. These changes will lead to positive benefits, but they will only solve part of the problem.
For at least a decade, the trenchless community has worried about the impending “retirement cliff” for the baby boomer generation. This cliff, is more like a slope spread over 15 years, was already supposed to peak starting around 2020. However, a big consequence of the pandemic has been an acceleration of these retirements, which has led to a steeper slope than previously envisioned. Succession planning has never been more important in the industry and preparing younger staff to handle larger roles and take on more responsibility must be a top priority to be prepared for an increase in infrastructure spending. Additionally, we must also address concerns with new graduates.
It would almost be comical to see the reaction of industry legends like Dr. Ralph Peck if you were to tell them that geotechnical, structural, and construction management classes were going to be taught 100 percent remotely. I fondly remember being captivated hearing Dr. Peck’s hour-long presentations where he used no slides, but simply described a case history and asked members of the lecture to describe what they would do in a similar situation on jobsites. New graduates have missed out on lectures like this, plus other key interactions with peers who will be their future colleagues and clients. They’ve missed out of in-person co-ops and internships. Our industry must respond to these challenges and find ways to prepare these graduates for success.
The trenchless engineering community must address all of this during an unprecedented investment in our water and sewer infrastructure. The American Rescue Plan Act is starting to trickle down and provides broad authority for communities to spend on water and sewer projects. Many states are flush (pun intended) with cash from Federal spending and other better than anticipated state revenues. For example, in Michigan, $2.5 billion has been proposed by the State legislature to fund water and sewer projects. Some states have taken the approach of funding “shovel ready” projects which in some ways exacerbates the scarcity issue. Some states and communities have taken a more cautious approach, waiting for the Federal Infrastructure Bill to pass. A portion of the Federal Infrastructure Bill includes great improvement on funding for water and sewer right in line with most of the trenchless industry and also provides an increased baseline for funding into the future. Beyond this bill, there is the potential for even more funding for lead removal and addressing combined sewer overflows in the “Reconciliation bill.”
Our trenchless community should involve themselves with lobbying for meaningful infrastructure spending and conveying critical information to representatives to help them understand what priorities should top their spending list. We must work to address capacity bottlenecks to make sure infrastructure spending brings meaningful projects to completion sooner to positively impact the public.
Rory P.A. Ball, P.E., is senior project manager at Wade Trim. He is also a member of the Trenchless Technology Editorial Advisory Board.