The future of civil engineering

btmadmin//September 19, 2022

The future of civil engineering

btmadmin//September 19, 2022

Civil engineering is one of the oldest engineering professions. It has existed since the first human settlement and has evolved with society and its infrastructural needs. Like other professions, technology has had the most significant impact on engineering.  One can argue that tech advances have not only been significant, but overwhelming.  The rate of increase in technological advances has been geometric, not linear.  Old school engineering practices have morphed into those associated with a sophisticated business model.   

Now digital technology is having a game-changing impact on our profession.  Emerging fields such as artificial intelligence that have shaken up other industries are now reaching civil engineering and construction. The digital landscape is changing at an ever-increasing speed. Civil engineers can no longer question if they are going to embrace digitalization, but when and how.  

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is an example of this game-changing technology.  BIM is a 3-D modeling process used to plan, design, modify, and manage a built asset. It supports the coordinated management of construction projects during their entire lifecycle from the project plan to design, build, operation, and maintenance.  Adopting BIM is important to civil engineering as it enables better collaboration among different stakeholders using the same set of shared resources. It reduces cost and improves quality by enabling ongoing review and updates in real time.   

Technological advances including virtual reality, drones, the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics will continue to challenge engineers and make it increasingly difficult to stay ahead of the curve. 

Another notable change facing civil engineers is the amount of public involvement in land development and community construction projects.  There was a time when such projects passed through municipal authorities with little, if any, discussion.  Now, thanks to digital and social media, residents are more aware of how these projects will affect them.  On a positive note, this has led to greater transparency and dialogue.  It has, however, also led to widespread distribution of misinformation as well as unfounded speculation, which can waste precious time and resources. 

Today, design professionals need to be more aware of the long-term impact of their projects.  Taking a holistic approach will lead to greater sustainability especially as we continue to address climate and environmental changes, as well as population growth.  An upside to this is the increase in long range capital improvement planning allowing communities to take a proactive approach to their infrastructure rather than the reactive approach typically associated with a project-by-project basis.  The Federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIL) invites such long-range planning.  BIL provides $550 billion over fiscal years 2022 through 2026 in new Federal investment in infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and water infrastructure.  The money is there, now municipalities must determine how to invest it for long term capital improvement. 

The engineering and construction industry has also witnessed a surge of mergers and acquisitions since the Great Recession, especially among smaller firms.  The retirement of baby-boomers, coupled with labor shortages and heightened buyer interest, have created an environment conducive to M&A activity.  Mergers and acquisitions frequently drive growth in the engineering and construction sector, sometimes outpacing organic growth.  It is expected the industry will see a steady increase in M&A activity for the remainder of 2022. 

Finally, I would be remiss not to address the increased competition for talent, a phenomenon facing most professions.  Engineering firms are investing more resources in the recruitment, hiring, training, and retention of talent.  Professional development, mentoring, career advancement, competitive compensation, and quality of life are tools engineering firms are using to attract and retain the best possible talent.  For example, at HRG, we leverage our ESOP culture as a recruitment and retention tool.  Cultural changes that have impacted the expectations and satisfaction among today’s labor force will continue to hinder the supply of engineering talent as the demand for such talent increases. 

Over the last two decades the engineering profession has attracted more women and minorities to the profession, thanks to STEM programs at the secondary and higher education levels, as well as greater awareness and acceptance. As we look to the future of engineering, we must aspire to even greater numbers.  Diversity is healthy for the engineering profession because engineers are problem solvers. Individuals with diverse ethnic, educational, and geographic backgrounds translate into a variety of perspectives approaching the same problem, and that leads to better solutions. 

Robert C. Grubic, P.E. is Chairman of the Board and CEO of Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, Inc (HRG).  During his 49-year career with HRG, Bob has been instrumental in the company’s strategic direction.  Under his leadership, HRG has expanded from a small, local firm based in Harrisburg into a nationally recognized, full-service civil engineering firm with over 275 employees and locations across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.