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Solving the Labor Shortage to Support Infrastructure Progress

Solving the Labor Shortage to Support Infrastructure Progress

By Lewis P. Cornell, PE

Last November, Congress passed President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which will provide $1.2 trillion dollars of federal funds to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, rails, airports, and other critical elements of our infrastructure. 

This summer, Americans began to see the direct impact of BIL when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced an award of nearly $1 billion to 85 airports, from Pittsburgh to Orlando to Dexter, Maine, to modernize existing terminals and build new ones. These grants also will be used to provide greater accessibility to people with disabilities when travelling by air.

Over the long run, BIL will help make America more competitive with other countries who have invested in modernizing their transportation systems for decades. BIL also will invest in underserved communities that have too often been left behind, or even harmed by past infrastructure developments such as highways that bifurcate inner-city neighborhoods.

But the road ahead faces a critical challenge: the US has a shortage of nearly one million engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This shortage is more than a speed bump and could seriously slow the progress that BIL funding will make possible, resulting in project delays and cancellations, among other negative impacts. 

Many factors have contributed to the engineer shortage, from early retirements taken during the pandemic, fewer students entering college and too few majoring in engineering. For the infrastructure industry, the shift from civil engineering careers to software engineering has led to some engineering graduates choosing to work for Internet, social media and crypto companies. With the aging of the US workforce, still more experienced engineers will retire over the next 5-10 years. 

Another major factor is that the US engineering workforce is still heavily white male, because for decades, engineering firms did not recruit enough women or minorities. Women now make up about 15.9 percent of engineers, and far fewer, only about 3.3 percent, are racial and ethnic minorities. Only 25 percent of civil engineering graduates are women, while people of color make up only 20 percent.

My company, WSP USA, with more than 15,500 US employees, designs major projects in the transportation, buildings, energy, water, and environment markets. The engineer shortage is front and center to us. We believe that infrastructure industry companies, working collaboratively with government and academia, must focus on specific actions to tackle the current engineer shortage:

Attract more women and people of color to engineering careers: Our industry must target a much younger demographic with a focus on women and people of color to introduce them to engineering and expose them to the field in age-appropriate ways. We also need to build talent pipelines directly from disadvantaged communities to infrastructure jobs.

To help achieve this goal, we have encouraged our senior executives to take leadership roles in the industry associations that drive programs to make diversity among the highest industry priorities. I am particularly proud of four of our own WSP women and minority leaders who serve in top positions at influential organizations such as Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, Latinos in Transit, American Public Transportation Association (APTA), and American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

These groups are building programs with public transportation agencies and private companies to implement best practices such as mentoring and leadership development for emerging professionals. APTA and WTS, for example, have successful initiatives partnering with HBCUs, the National Society of Black Engineers and Airport Advisory Minority Council to attract new talent. Moreover, engineering companies like mine are collaborating with our disadvantaged and minority business partners, often small engineering firms, to develop strategies to attract minority talent. 

Attract Future Engineers through Scholarships and Industry Contacts:  The American Public Transportation Foundation, funded by the industry, provides scholarships to financially needy college students studying engineering and related STEM topics across the nation. Equally important, it connects the scholars to industry professionals who mentor them and provide on-site experiences at their companies. With more than $1.5 million provided to date, each year the Foundation is increasing the number of scholars who receive funding.

Kosciuszko Bridge, New York City

Showcase the “Purpose” of Engineering to Future Engineers:  While some  graduating engineers  may want to work in social media, video games, or crypto currencies because of the glamour and pay potential of start-ups, at WSP we emphasize that if you want to participate in solving major societal problems like climate change, water insecurity or equity in transportation, there is nothing more  impactful than a civil engineering career. Think about this:  WSP  helped design a vegetative sound wall barrier to support the protection of residents and park visitors from nearby air pollution at the 10-lane freeway-adjacent Ramona Gardens Housing Development in Los Angeles, historically one of the most polluted communities in California. For the City of Raleigh, North Carolina, WSP led a study to ensure that Raleigh’s planned Bus Rapid Transit system would equitably realize benefits across all the city’s populations.  The study identified land use policies and zoning tools to maintain and incentivize affordable housing and promote job creation along bus routes. 

We can reduce the engineer shortage if we unlock the talents of a more diverse US workforce and engage creative young engineers on infrastructure projects that improve mobility for all, solve societal problems and contribute to a more sustainable, decarbonized world. If we attract more talented engineers to our industry and retain them, we will ensure the $1.2 trillion of funding that our government has provided will result in an infrastructure that benefits all Americans.

Lewis P. Cornell, PE, is president and CEO of WSP USA and responsible for operations in the United States, overseeing a workforce of more than 15,500 employees and over $2 billion USD in annual revenue. WSP is active on hundreds of projects across transportation and infrastructure, buildings, energy, water and environment end markets. He has nearly 30 years of extensive and progressive design and management experience in the engineering, environmental, architectural and construction industry. He has been successful in running operations, setting strategy and significantly growing profits for large U.S. engineering businesses. Reach him at lou.cornell@wsp.com.