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The State of the AEC Industry

The State of the AEC Industry

By Chad Clinehens

The latest COVID-19 data published by Zweig Group shows the effect of the pandemic on the industry. Despite the numbers showing cancelled or delayed contracts, we are doing far better than our brothers and sisters in the retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries, at least so far.

Early in the pandemic, when stay at home orders kept many inside office workers at home, I heard many firm leaders say their surveying and construction personnel were busier than ever. With the nature of their work being outside, COVID lockdowns had little effect on their workday.  Surveyors and construction admin barely skipped a beat in many firms.

For firms that experienced disruption, it was the transition of office workers to the home. Years of research pre-COVID showed investment in IT infrastructure is one of the top drivers of growth, along with marketing and human resources. Those firms that had robust IT infrastructure definitely made the work from home transition quicker and easier. For everyone else, it was a rapid transformation.

With all of the challenges of COVID-19, it has forced us to advance in some much needed areas. As an industry, we’ve significantly lagged other industries in measures of workplace advancements like diversity, flexibility, and information technology (IT). I believe advancements in both diversity and flexibility are critical to helping us solve the recruiting and retention challenge we face as an industry. Flexibility is certainly an area where we were forced to make profound adjustments.

The good news is that firms have done quite well—with many reporting increased efficiencies and productivity of staff. We asked firm leaders what percentage of their workforce telecommute/work could effectively remotely.  Responses increased from 80 percent at the beginning of the pandemic to 95 percent in the most recent data set.

As the restrictions of COVID dissipate, we are going to have to fight the tendency to go back to the way things were. The flexibility that was forced is good and it is working well. This level of flexibility will help us in both in recruiting and retention as an industry. We’ll never go completely back to the way things were and we need to embrace it. Although COVID has not had a dramatic effect on our field personnel, the effect on the office environment will be lasting.

Another area experiencing major disruption is business development. 90 percent of AEC firms say COVID-19 will affect overall business development activities in the next 12 months.

The ability to obtain new work was cited as the biggest impact of COVID, along with ability to train staff; collection period/accounts receivable (AR); ability to collaborate with subcontractors / consultants on projects; and ability to collaborate internally on projects. 78 percent of firms surveyed believe their revenue will be down in 2020 from 2019, and they expect it to be down by a median of 20 percent.  Looking ahead, firm leaders are equally divided as 51 percent surveyed recently believe the economy is going to be in better shape next year with 49 percent believing it will not be, further illustrating how challenging it is to plan. Looking ahead, some firms are adjusting their expectations now. When looking at 2021, 59 percent of firms are considering changes to their budget with the median cut at 15 percent.

Regardless of where you are with your own expectations of the future, there are some things you can do to stay strong and emerge even stronger. 1) Embrace efficiencies and right size your firm. 2) Preserve cash and be prepared for additional volatility. 3) Invest in marketing and business development. The tendency is to cut these areas, as evidenced by the latest data.

Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.