Despite tough times, the structural engineering industry is rebounding in 2010, and optimism is up for continued growth this year.

The past year has not been easy for many Americans. Between layoffs and budget cuts, many industries, including structural engineering, are still feeling the strains of the 2009 recession. But through all of this, the structural engineers who responded to the Structural Engineering & Design 2010 State of the Industry poll remain optimistic that conditions will improve and the profession will rebound in the next few years.

The state of the industry
After a tough economic year, it may come as no surprise that structural engineers reported a slight dip in enthusiasm about the profession and the industry as compared to past years. By studying Figure 1, we can see that 89 percent of respondents in 2009 said they were happy to be an engineer, but just 83 percent said the same in 2010. With a positive response rate greater than 80 percent, structural engineers who participated in the survey remain upbeat about their chosen profession.

Stephen H. Lucy, P.E., managing partner of Jaster-Quintanilla Dallas LLP, is happier than ever. “I have been fortunate to have chosen a career I have always found interesting and satisfying,” Lucy says. “Although my level of stress may have increased at times during this recessionary period, my level of satisfaction has also increased as I have enjoyed the competitive environment and the pursuit of new markets. No two days are ever the same, and this variety makes it enjoyable.” Others, such as Joe H. Hilliard, P.E., principal at Cromwell Architects Engineers, Inc., have mixed feelings. “My level of job satisfaction has not changed, but I find that my staff and I are working harder and making less,” Hilliard says.

Fewer survey participants this year responded that now is a good time to be an engineer — only 41 percent compared to 59 percent in 2009. But Lucy believes the recession may have left a few positive changes in its wake. “I remain optimistic about the future of the industry and specifically the structural engineering profession,” Lucy says. “If anything, the recession has caused the AEC industry to develop a more collaborative environment that highlights the strengths of each team member.” Leon E. Valla, P.E., transportation engineer at the State of California Department of Transportation believes there is never a bad time to be a structural engineer. “There will always be demand for this type of profession with continuous rewarding challenges,” Valla says.

Beyond these decreases, the big picture seem to be looking up as a whole for structural engineers; 48 percent of our 2010 poll respondents said they feel the economy is improving in the United States. This is considerably higher than the somber 34 percent of Americans in a national Gallup poll who responded the same (as reported on in the Gallup Daily: U.S. Economic Outlook poll from March 12-14). This is a marked improvement from last year’s Structural Engineering & Design poll in which only 23 percent of respondents felt the economy was getting better (see Figure 2).

Although there appears to be an uptick in confidence that the economy is improving, it may be a few years until the structural engineering industry is revived completely. “We are seeing a greater amount of activity at this time than we did six months ago, and we feel that construction activity is improving,” says Stuart K. Jacobsen, S.E., P.E., president of Stuart K. Jacobson & Associates, Ltd. “We are optimistic that things will improve, but think we are still a few years away from returning to business as usual.”

Individual jobs, workload, and compensation
Overall it seems that optimism for job security is looking up in 2010. As Figure 3 suggests, 53 percent of respondents this year agreed or strongly agreed that they felt their job was secure from potential downsizing in 2010. Only 47 percent responded the same in 2009. Maintaining staff was not the key challenge most respondents felt their firm would face for 2010, either (see Figure 4). Rather, keeping a backlog of work was the number one concern (64 percent), followed by maintaining clients (12 percent), maintaining salaries (7 percent), and then maintaining staff (6 percent). “Firms must retain their best employees in order to survive and ultimately grow,” explains David Aucoin, P.E., project manager at Pruitt Eberly Stone, Inc. in Atlanta. “It’s the quality of the people that often drives a company’s success, and many firms will need to invest in their employees again before losing them to other firms or industries.”

Despite the positive outlook on job security, 56 percent of respondents indicated they are dissatisfied with the way things are going at their firm or organization. Much of this unhappiness could stem from compensation and workload issues. In the past 12 months, 66 percent of respondents have experienced a salary freeze, 54 percent did not receive an annual bonus, and 40 percent weathered a pay cut. Earnings reductions were also felt by some respondents through reduced hours (39 percent) and the decrease or elimination of employer retirement benefit contribution (32 percent).

In addition to a slump in earnings, many structural engineers have more work to do. Fifty five percent agree they have more than enough work to do, and 51 percent of respondents agreed to some extent that their workload has changed in the past 6 months to include duties of a departed/laid off co-worker. As a result, there is a wide range of agreement about the degree to which compensation reflects workload; 36 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their level of compensation accurately reflects their workload, while 32 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement (see Figure 5).

Unfortunately those polled do not expect a quick fix to their compensation woes — 35 percent of respondents said they expected their compensation to decrease this year; 40 percent expected it to stay the same. Considering that nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said they expected their firm’s total revenue to decrease in 2010, the freezes or cuts in individual compensation aligns with overall revenue struggles for many firms and organizations. But David Atkins, P.E., S.E., senior project engineer at AECOM in Green Bay, Wisc., believes that though the nearly universal setbacks in compensation are a natural way to weather a recession, conditions will improve soon. “At some firms, there are reduced hours and staff reductions; other firms close their doors,” says Atkins. “I am confident the opposite will be true as we emerge from this recession.”

Firm pursuit and growth
As shown in Figure 6, the highest areas of activity for firms and organizations are currently government and office buildings (at 61 percent each) followed by industrial (52 percent), educational (49 percent), medical (43 percent), and residential (42 percent). However, the structural engineers who responded to this survey indicate that, as a group, they feel the public sector is the area with the highest projected growth potential in 2010. Figure 7 illustrates the sectors in which respondents indicated the highest growth potential. Bright spots include government (60 percent), transportation infrastructure (49 percent), medical (40 percent), bridges (34 percent), and educational (32 percent).

These findings support the majority opinion that the public sector is likely to provide the most work in 2010; as funding is scarce in the private sector, the public sector is the place most structural engineers polled feel it will be best to focus on this year. In fact, 87 percent of respondents selected funding for private projects as an important or most important issue to the structural engineering industry (see Table 1). Seventy five percent said that funding for public and infrastructure projects was the most important issue.

The 2010 Structural Engineering & Design survey also included several questions on building information modeling (BIM). It appears that the use of BIM technology is slowly but surely gaining ground in structural engineering firms. As Figure 8 illustrates, 46 percent of respondents in 2010 said BIM has been used on projects in their firm or organization. This is just a few percentage points higher than last year at 44 percent, but significantly higher than in 2006 when only 23 percent reported that they were using BIM in their firms.

For those firms using BIM, the frequency of use is growing steadily as well. As illustrated in Figure 9, 12 percent of respondents indicated their firm used BIM on approximately 25 percent of projects, up from nine percent in 2009. Eight percent said their firm uses the technology on half of all projects, four percent said it’s used on 75 percent of all projects, and five percent said it’s used on more than 90 percent of all projects — one percentage point higher than last year in all three instances.

Some engineers feel that their firm’s use of BIM gives them a competitive advantage. “We were an early adopter of BIM and have seen this open a number of doors for us during the recession,” says Aucoin. “We see our current expertise in BIM project delivery resulting in more projects coming our way and increased revenue from a larger range of service offerings related to BIM.”

Based on responses to the survey, we can conclude that although 2009 was a very tough year for the profession, structural engineers as a whole are optimistic that 2010 and even 2011 will show improvements in growth and earnings and that the country, and the industry itself, will soon bounce back. BIM technology is also finding a place in more firms than ever before, and the firms who use it are using it on more projects than they have in the past. Structural engineers are beginning 2010 with hope for the future of the industry and their careers and are making the best of the slowly recovering economy.

About the survey
The online 2010 State of the Industry survey was open to Structural Engineering & Design subscribers from March 9-19, 2010. The results presented here are based on 706 completed surveys from respondents who responded positively to this statement: “I primarily engage in the structural engineering profession, which includes design, management, and construction of projects in disciplines such as, but not limited to, transportation engineering, utility engineering, land development, geotechnical engineering, environmental engineering, and/or land surveying.”

The survey participants practice in 48 of the 50 states. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents practice in the private sector and represent small, midsized, and large firms. Every job title is represented, from staff engineer through president/CEO. And while engineers at every experience level participated in the survey, those with more than 30 years of experience in the industry represented the majority (37 percent).