May the Force Be with You—You Need It!
The apex of summer means different things to different people: blockbuster movies, all-star baseball, HEAT, vacation, more heat. But in the thankfully cool offices of CSE, it means something entirely different: time to crunch numbers! It's not the budget cycle, it's GIANTS time, and with our abacuses mightily worn, we have once again tabulated our annual Top 100 M/E/P engineering firms (p 37).
The apex of summer means different things to different people: blockbuster movies, all-star baseball, HEAT, vacation, more heat. But in the thankfully cool offices of CSE, it means something entirely different: time to crunch numbers! It's not the budget cycle, it's GIANTS time, and with our abacuses mightily worn, we have once again tabulated our annual Top 100 M/E/P engineering firms (p 37). And speaking of venerable and still fully functional tools, we've also dusted off another staple from years past: The National Engineering Survey. For a number of reasons it went away for half a decade. But that makes revisiting it even more interesting to see how things have changed. Back in 2000, the last time we conducted the study, big issues facing our readers included finding qualified engineers, project delivery and scheduling, energy efficiency, IAQ and sustainable design. Our latest survey shows that these issues remain important. In fact, being even more proactive in energy efficiency was noted as the greatest change in the role of engineers in the past five years. Other challenges include staying abreast of new technology; the ability to integrate whole packages of systems, start to finish; and learning, adapting and staying on top of code changes. Commissioning and LEED also ranked high.
We also learned that the role of the engineer on the job has changed significantly, and not necessarily for the better. Engineers reported they must assume greater responsibility in construction management, particularly with the increase in the number of fast-track and design-build jobs. Furthermore, deadlines are continuing to tighten, and there's a need to quickly produce construction documents.
None of this is earth-shattering news. But behind these conditions is a rather disturbing trend: the commoditization of the profession. “The status of the engineer has been lowered. Clients want the lowest price, not knowledgeable professionals,” said one respondent.
Indeed, the engineers surveyed say they're being asked to do all this work with less staff and for less money. And it's still difficult to find and retain qualified staff. As a result, some engineers say they are even losing work to contractors. Under such conditions, it's not surprising to see some shocking differences in professional practices these past few years. For example, only 7% of readers surveyed said they use final on-site inspections to ensure that contractors comply with the spec. In 2000, 54% did.
That said, engineers are not taking this lying down. At least half of the respondents said they are much more aggressive in dealing with owners directly than they were five years ago. In fact, some firms reported that as much as 59% of their business was contracted directly with owners. Engineers have also had to learn to branch out or really market the services they can offer owners: code compliance, master planning, energy optimization, and power quality and reliability, among others.
“Always in motion is the future,” said a diminutive green sage from a summer blockbuster long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But one thing is abundantly clear: Engineers must do something to stand out in the A/E/C crowd lest they suffer the fate of that fellow and fade away.