By Christy Zweig Niehues

Zweig Group’s now year-long survey on the Impacts of Covid-19 on the AEC Industry shows increasing optimism about the economy and industry, but one of the hardest hit areas was already one of the industry’s top challenges – recruitment and retention. 

According to the survey of individuals working in architecture, engineering, environmental, and construction firms, the vast majority (72 percent) of respondents from this year report that economic conditions in their market are the same or better than they were one year previous (January-March 2020 all prior to COVID-19). Recent respondents also report major optimism for the U.S. economy at large, with 19 percent stating the economy will be the same as it is now in another year, 57 percent predicting somewhat better, and 17 percent reporting much better conditions.  Just 6 percent of respondents stated they felt the U.S. economy would be in worse shape at this time in 2022.  “COVID-19 has fueled substantial revenues through our clients in healthcare, life sciences, education and transportation,” said one survey respondent.  

Some areas are largely un-impacted by Covid-19.  Firms remain steady on their ability to provide high quality service and response to clients (rated 1.85 out of 5 on a 1 to 5 scale of negative impact) and ability to finish current projects on time (rated 1.9/5). 

Despite this optimism, 75 percent of respondents state that COVID-19 will impact business development this year.  Internal staff development and recruiting have also been hit hard.  Among the areas of business most impacted negatively by Covid-19, firms list the ability to train staff (3.2/5 on a 1-5 scale of negative impact), and the ability to collaborate internally (2.9/5), at the top.  “It is such a challenging balance between controlling costs and a competitive job market for experienced staff,” said one respondent to the survey.  

Indeed, the need for experienced staff has not decreased over the past year, with 56 percent of firms this year reporting they need professionals with 7-10 years of experience.  In this age bracket are many parents with school-aged children – the demographic most highly impacted by the pandemic and likely to leave the workforce, including the AEC industry.  

According to a recent report by The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, four times as many women as men dropped out of the overall U.S. labor force in September 2020.  Another study by FlexJobs, found that since the pandemic started, almost half of working parents (40 percent) have had to change their employment situation by either voluntarily reducing their hours (25 percent) or quitting entirely (15 percent).  Of those that quit entirely, 38 percent do not plan to rejoin the workforce.  

Zweig Group data reflects this.  According to the Impacts of COVID-19 on the AEC Industry Survey, since the pandemic started, 41 percent of firms report some percentage of their staff has “voluntarily” reduced their hours and pay (for example going from full-time to part-time) due to COVID-19 related factors (caring for children or another family member, household obligations, etc.).  One-third of AEC firms report having at least one full-time individual quit or resign due to the factors above.

National studies across all industries show that due to COVID-19 school and child care closures, mothers with young children have reduced their work hours at a rate 4-5 times than the reductions arranged by fathers. Misty L. Heggeness, an economist at the U.S. Census Bureau, found that women of school-aged children in early-closure states (due to COVID-19) were 20 percent more likely to take temporary leave, and 30 percent more likely to leave a job compared with those in states that had not yet closed. 

There is no return to normal.  Zweig Group’s latest Impacts of Covid-19 on the AEC Industry survey asks a singularly important question, “Do you think your workplace will go back to the way it was pre-March 2020?” The majority of respondents, almost 65 percent answered, “No.” With that response comes a note of positivity – a continuation of remote work and increased flexibility, something valued by all employees, but particularly the younger generation and those with caretaking responsibilities in the home.  Latest figures report that 76 percent of the AEC industry workforce can work remotely and effectively.  

With this new development, Zweig Group asked firm leaders if remote work options have enabled their firm to expand hiring activities. 8  percent of firms stated these new options have enabled them to hire outside of their usual geographic area, 10 percent stated they were now hiring candidates that might not have otherwise been considered due to a need or preference for flexible or work-from-home options, and 30 percent of firms said both activities have benefited their firm.  The effects of this are huge – and not likely to be seen in full effect for another few months or a year.  

Even as many return to office life, we’ve crossed a new threshold – one where increased flexibility may make the AEC industry more attractive to a diverse array of candidates at all stages of their life.  I hope firms will continue to embrace this as it represents a solution to a longstanding top challenge – how to recruit and retain the best and brightest minds to an industry that is vital for our society.  


Christy Zweig Niehues is director of Research & ECommerce at Zweig Group. She can be reached at czweig@zweiggroup.com.

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