President's Message

By: Jennifer Schaff


The future looks bright! Retaining top talent is part of the hurdle we face for meeting the opportunities ahead.


Despite the doom and gloom we hear on the news and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the future is bright for our industry and our economy. In an article by Jay Flanders in ASCE magazine in January of 2022, he talks about the economic challenges during the pandemic and points to an upturn in Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) market. Jay writes “Amid the onset of a global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in countries around the world, many sectors within the AEC industry either languished or suffered serious setbacks in 2020. Throughout 2021, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and high prices for many construction materials affected the entire AEC sector. Despite these hurdles, residential construction remained strong in 2021, far outpacing all other industry subsectors as it continued the torrid growth that began in 2020. Meanwhile, the nonresidential building sector remained stable, though a handful of subsectors hit hard by COVID-19 — notably lodging, offices, public safety, and amusement and recreation — continued their downward trajectories. Finally, the nonbuilding sector, which includes traditional infrastructure categories, showed mixed results during 2021, led by modest growth in the drinking water and wastewater treatment subsectors.


Even before the IIJA was signed into law, some economists noted the degree to which the AEC industry appeared on track to grow in 2022. For example, proposal activity for AEC firms remained strong in the third quarter of 2021, says David Burstein, P.E., a director and senior consultant for PSMJ Resources Inc., which provides consulting services to AEC firms.


“Our overall outlook for the industry is very, very strong” for 2022, says Rebecca Zofnass, a managing partner for the Environmental Financial Consulting Group (EFCG), which advises AEC firms on financial and strategic matters. “That’s based on what all the individual firms we gather data from are projecting for next year,” Zofnass says. “Both in terms of growth and profit margins, we are seeing a very, very quick recovery out of 2020 — certainly not the same lasting impacts that we saw in previous downturns.””


Labor shortage.

The optimistic outlook for AEC is wonderful and yet I think there is a bit of apprehension as we look around to see staffing shortages and the lack of potential candidates.  From an EFCG, November 2021 Insight Briefing, “Zofnass suggested that the combination of pre-existing trends in talent and HR (such as changing generations and their preferences) together with pandemic driven shifts (including remote working) are creating “greater talent challenges in the a/e/c industry than ever seen before” (EA 06-Aug-21). Key areas where firms are seeing an impact include:


  • Attrition among students pursuing STEM degrees contributing to a potential deficit of 1.3 million architecture/ engineering workers in the US by 2030
  • Intense competition between firms in finding ‘skilled/qualified candidates’
  • Strong need for additional training and development, including digital skills, across all levels of the organization
  • Heightened levels of depression and anxiety, in addition to new family obligations, stemming from the pandemic
  • Continued above-average turnover among younger employees, women, and underrepresented communities
  • Increase in employees leaving firms to work for a competitor (48% of voluntary turnover in 2021 vs 42% in 2020) - the Great Resignation”


Zofnass went on to underline the costly nature of losing employees, stating: “The estimates are between $50K and $150k per employee who is turned over. So if you reduce your voluntary turnover by one point, from say 10% to 9%, you actually add 4-5% straight to the bottom line.”


“Not only is it costly, especially in a growth environment turnover is effectively a leaky bucket,” she continued. “Because no matter how quickly you get new employees through the door, if your turnover rate is high, you’re going to have trouble supporting the growth opportunities you see on the horizon.”


Are we paying enough?

There are many benefits that can be offered to employees and offering a competitive salary is important. How much is enough? ASCE offers an online Salary Calculator that generates customized reports using sophisticated regression modeling and data directly extracted from the 2021 ASCE Salary Survey. Users input specific criteria and an algorithm produces customized salary results.


ASCE members get 5 free data uses and Student members get 2 free data uses of the Salary Calculator and/or the Searchable Survey Data. If you participate in data gathering in the current Survey, this grants an additional 10 uses, for a total of 15 free uses. You can access data and participate here


What else can we offer?

There is much that can be said about what else we might offer to retain talent. I found a simple straight forward approach in an article by TRANSEARCH. I offer the following interpretation of their five steps:


  1. Understand what your employees are looking for. How do you do that? Ask them, remember the answers and act to make it happen. 
  2. Understand your employees career aspirations and help them obtain skills, training and experience to execute their goals. 
  3. Allow employees to engage in work that challenges them.
  4. Emphasize employee wellness and maybe order a salad or two as an offering at the next work lunch meeting.
  5. Encourage sharing of “war stories” and passing on of knowledge and skills.  


I would add that continuing efforts to add diversity to our industry is really important to our future.  


Now you might be reading this and thinking, I am not in a position to cause this type of change at my company. Yes, you are! You have a voice, I challenge you to use it! 

Jennifer Schaff, P.E., M.ASCE

ASCE Wisconsin Section President