By ACEC Research Institute Chair John Carrato of Alfred Benesch & Company
Like many parts of the economy, the engineering sector has been negatively affected by the COVID-induced downturn. Based on the federal government’s own numbers, the engineering and design sector’s revenue declined by 7 percent in 2020, and the ACEC Research Institute's newly released 2021-2025 Engineering Industry Forecast projects another 4 percent decline in 2021 before recovery begins to kick in during the second half of the year. The industry will grow modestly (3 percent annually) from 2022-2024, primarily due to pandemic-related stimulus spending, but then will tail off slightly in 2025.
These numbers underscore why this industry turned to programs like the Paycheck Protection Program to lessen the blow of a declining economy, and why it is so important for Congress to take action to ensure that our industry can keep this vital assistance.
While these economic projections are not particularly encouraging, they are also not definitive. Congress and the Administration could take steps that would dramatically improve the outlook and set the nation on the path to recovery and growth.
The most significant step towards achieving this goal would be to pass a robust infrastructure agenda this year, and the principal driver for that agenda will be legislation to reauthorize and significantly expand federal programs to support surface transportation projects authorized by the FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation), which will expire at the end of September. Congress made progress towards this goal last year but needed to pass a year-long extension when time ran out. The Biden Administration now has the opportunity to create a new surface transportation program that is significant in scope and transformative in vision, one that allows for innovative solutions to improve and expand the system while incorporating sustainability and resiliency against the growing effects of climate change.
Our industry has a critical role to play in shaping and driving such an infrastructure initiative. We are involved in virtually every aspect of delivering infrastructure projects for our clients — from early-stage planning and environmental work to the design and construction oversight — and we are designing innovative solutions to meet climate change and other challenges facing the nation’s critical infrastructure now and on the horizon.
The engineering industry also helps to drive the economy because we are integrally involved in virtually every sector of the economy — from transportation, water, and energy to residential and commercial development and industrial facilities. ACEC Research Institute’s research has found that the engineering sector itself employs more than 1.5 million Americans and indirectly supports another 3 million jobs — meaning 1 in every 33 Americans owes his/her job to engineering. Together, that represents 3 percent of all U.S. jobs. The sector's direct revenue in 2019 totaled $386 billion, and its overall economic impact was nearly $600 billion. The industry's multiplier effect is undeniable as every $1 in engineering revenue contributes $1.55 to U.S. GDP.
We know the challenges that are before us. Shaken by COVID-19 and a series of natural disasters, our nation's critical infrastructure is dangerously vulnerable to a wide range of threats, and as a nation we face considerable social and racial challenges.
Our industry has a role to play in addressing all these challenges. We design solutions that make our infrastructure safer and more resilient. We design communities and spaces that foster social experiences and interactions. And we develop technologies and systems that help reduce pollution and energy consumption.
Engineers innovate and contribute, and we have an opportunity this year to unleash the enormous capacity of America’s engineering industry to build back a better future for all of us. Let’s work together and get it done.