The best of times

With a focus on renewable energy and environmental conservation, and a need to improve a vast and aging infrastructure, opportunity abounds.

Things are going pretty well for nearly all these days. Those downturn doldrums are a distant memory and the more recent drop in the oil and gas sector has at least stabilized. It seems nearly every market sector and geographic region of the country is busy – no matter the service offerings a company provides. The question of the day is whether we are in the “best of times.”

I certainly think so.

We are in the confluence of a much-improved economy with an ever-increasing need for our help. The private sector is spending and the public sector revenues are much stronger than a few years ago. Construction activity is visibly up as one travels throughout the country, reinforcing the fact the economy is relatively strong. And, as I reflect on the history of the AEC profession and the experience in my own career, there just seems to be more need for our help resulting from both the opportunities and challenges facing this world today. And it seems our professions are central to solving these – while advancing society to a better tomorrow. It’s the need for our help that is the exciting part of the position the AEC industry is in today.

What is creating this opportunity that is yielding the “best of times?”

Let’s begin with infrastructure. Nearly every aspect of our infrastructure is aging in this country. Transportation, water, power, and other systems are straining from the years of taxing use and neglect while there is a need to expand capacity even more. Yet repairing or expanding this infrastructure is viewed as a cost rather than an investment in our future and there is reluctance to step up and fund these needs. We are observing more investment in each of these sectors – using a combination of traditional and much healthier funding sources combined with many new innovative approaches. The need is just too overwhelming over the coming decades to be ignored.

Then there is the area of energy – opportunity that’s driven by our country’s stated goal of energy independence along with desires to be more efficient with our use of energy. This will be a long-term opportunity for those in the AEC industry, irrespective of the shorter-term downturn we have experienced from the fall in oil prices. There are new approaches and technology continually being developed to extract energy products from fossil fuel sources previously believed unreachable or cost prohibitive. At the same time, alternative forms of non-fossil fuel energy such as solar, wind, and bio-fuels continue to grow. All of this is occurring while we continue to look for more efficiency with the energy we use – whether it’s new and existing buildings, vehicles, or the equipment we use. We continue to develop new technology and equipment to manage and save energy use at every level.

We also may be witnessing a new industrial revolution in this country – the reshoring of manufacturing and other industrial production. Political uncertainty, and increases in labor and energy costs in the developing manufacturing countries, are certainly driving decisions. Tipping the scales for the industrial sector to consider bringing business back to this country are the logistical advantages to market and “total landed costs.” Corporations like GE, Caterpillar, and Ford have already begun relocating manufacturing capability from abroad while foreign corporations are also now establishing facilities in this country. I believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg for this reshoring revival.

At the same time we have growth and building opportunity, there is even more emphasis on preserving our environment. The movement to protect and enhance our environment through conservation and protection is not going away. The recent years have demonstrated we have now gone beyond regulation – doing it because we were required – to what is now good stewardship brought on by broad social support and a desire to preserve the planet.

And then there’s climate change – a different angle on the environment. Whether man-made or just another period in time, the erratic and severe weather patterns and rising sea levels present both an opportunity and challenge for our industry. Preserving our air, water, and earth resources along with adopting sustainable practices to recycle, reuse, and be self-sufficient is an endless opportunity for AEC professionals to be the best stewards of our environment.

There are so many other challenges and opportunities for the AEC industry. The above was only intended to paint a glimpse of what is in front of us. And when you consider that there is even more opportunity beyond this country – it’s almost limitless. We may be the first generation of AEC professionals in quite some time that are crucially central for that better tomorrow.

All of this describes the “who and what” and not the “how.” The how is up to us as leaders and practitioners. It will require innovation and creativity, political and community activism. Leaders of civil engineering organizations – whether public or private – will need to fully engage and unleash our talented workforce. Let’s seize this unique opportunity and our rightful place as the champions of the solutions.

Gerry Salontai is the founder of Salontai Consulting Group, LLC. Contact him at gerry@salontai.com.

Posted in Archives, Transportation | October 17th, 2016 by