Many would say the recent economic downturn was the worst of times in the history of the AEC industry. The worst has long passed for most companies that were impacted and it was never that eventful for those that weren't. No matter, the question today is whether we are now entering the "best of times?"
I certainly think so.
As I reflect on the history of the AEC professions and the experience in my own career, there just seems to be more opportunities and challenges in this world today than ever before. And it seems the civil engineering profession (along with those allied professions that make it up) is central to solving these – while advancing society to a better tomorrow.
What is creating this "world of opportunity"?
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. 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. I believe the lack of funding trend will finally reverse itself – using a combination of traditional funding sources combined with many new innovative approaches. It just has to be solved. The need is too overwhelming during the next decade to be ignored much longer.
Then there is the area of energy. The opportunity in this sector is endless, driven by our country's stated goal of energy independence along with desires to use energy more efficiently. There are new approaches and technology to extract energy products from fossil fuel sources previously believed unreachable or cost prohibitive. This is driving a boom we have not seen in decades, perhaps a century, in this country. 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 greater efficiency with the energy we use – whether it's new or 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 "re-shoring" 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 such as GE, Caterpillar, and Ford have already begun relocating manufacturing capability from abroad while foreign corporations also are now establishing facilities in this country. I believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg for this re-shoring revival.
And then there is the environment. The movement for preserving the environment through conservation and protection is not going away. Recent years have demonstrated that we have now transcended beyond regulation – doing it because we were required – to what is now good stewardship brought on by broad social support and desire to preserve the planet. Then there is climate change – a different angle on the environment. Whether manmade or a natural cycle, the erratic and severe weather patterns and rising sea levels present both an opportunity and challenge for our industry. I'm convinced that preserving our air, water, and earth resources along with adopting sustainable practices to recycle, reuse, and be self-sufficient is an endless opportunity for civil engineers to be the good stewards of our environment.
This paints only a glimpse of what is in front of us; there are so many other challenges and opportunities for the AEC industry. And when you consider that there is even more opportunity beyond this country, it's almost limitless. We may be the first generation of civil engineers 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 and 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 leads the Salontai Consulting Group (www.salontai.com), a management advisory company focused on helping companies achieve success in the areas of strategy, business management, and leadership. He can be reached at 858-756-5169 or firstname.lastname@example.org.