Business of Engineering

A/E industry is having banner 2020

Morrissey Goodale is providing A/E leaders with news and perspective on COVID-19 and its impact on the industry. This week, they discuss on whether 2021 will surpass 2020's record profits.

By Morrissey Goodale November 16, 2020
Iconic high-rise commercial buildings in Chicago. Courtesy: CFE Media

Morrissey Goodale is providing A/E leaders with news and perspective on COVID-19 and its impact on the industry. This week, they discuss on whether 2021 will surpass 2020’s record profits.

2020 will set a record for industry profits. Could 2021 be even better?

The A/E industry is having a banner year. Many (most?) firms will see record sales, revenues and profits in 2020. During a tumultuous year for the nation, our industry has forged ahead, demonstrated remarkable resiliency and agility, and invested in transformational technologies at an accelerated pace. Firms large and small have continued to serve their clients and take care of their employees.

Despite this record year, worries have persisted about the short-term outlook.  Speak with CEOs and a common theme is that they have been expecting a slowdown and/or erosion of backlog to show up in the 3rd quarter or 4th quarter of 2020. The same concerns are manifested in industry surveys. The ACEC Research Institute’s September industry survey shows large percentages of leaders concerned about a decline in business over the next 12 months. The most recent AIA survey is similarly gloomy about the outlook for the balance of 2020 and full-year 2021.

But it would appear that there is a disconnect between what’s happening on the ground and industry surveys. Based on their backlogs, plenty of A/E and environmental firms around the country are expecting the boom to continue deep into 2021.

Publicly traded industry leaders are reporting strong backlogs headed into 2021. Stantec, Tetra Tech, NV5, and Atlas Technical Consultants all reported either record or close to record backlogs heading into the new year. And these tailwinds are playing out throughout the industry.

Sunbelt development shows strength. Residential and commercial development in Arizona in general and in and around Phoenix in particular continues at a frenetic pace. After some concerning times earlier in the year due to the pandemic when many firms saw multiple projects put on hold, civil and surveying firms are seeing strong demand and expect it to continue well into the new year. Some firms are even turning away work as they do not have the capacity to take on new projects and execute on them successfully.

Florida is also booming likes it’s 2019. Architecture firms up and down the gulf coast of Florida indicating that they are having a hard time keeping up with the demand in the private sector. Senior living, mixed-use, and hotel/casino sectors are moving forward with major developments.

Private sector development outlook in Carolinas and Georgia is robust through the first half of 2021. It’s not unusual to hear from firms that their backlog is holding at 8 to 12 months— higher than it’s ever been and no sign of immediate erosion. Residential development is providing optimism well into the new year for many A/E firms in these three states. Healthcare and higher education are more mixed, but still with strength in certain regions. Warehouse and distribution center development is robust through 2021.

Surveying and civil engineering firms in the Northeast are also struggling to keep up with demand. Continued refinancing and repurposing of commercial sites, and on-going strength in residential development have swelled backlogs from 60 days to 6 months. Architecture and interiors firms are also benefitting massively from these conditions.

The same pattern applies around Washington DC. Architectural design, civil engineering and site work in residential development and certain niches of the commercial sector are going strong, including Loudon County in Northern Virginia, one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., as well as the DC suburbs in Maryland and Delaware. Firms in and around the nation’s capital see this work lasting well into 2021.

California firms are as busy as ever. Many are looking to staff up now and the first half of 2021. Residential development in all regions of the state continues to see investment to meet strong demand. The agricultural and water resources markets in the Central Valley are notably robust. This is benefitting regional players and smaller architecture, civil, and surveying firms up and down the state. Firms are seeing some signs of weakness in the public sector, however. While projects are being put out for design, it’s unclear if they will make it through to construction. Many firms are still reporting record backlogs of a year or more— taking them well into the new year.

E-commerce will drive national demand for A/E services beyond 2021. With the nation Zooming into work, shopping and binge-watching, the outlook for data centers and warehouse/distribution centers is positive well beyond the new year. The speed of deployment for these facilities rivals anything seen since the boom in the rollout of cell towers 20-plus years ago.

Life sciences will carry many firms through 2022. Massive investments in drug and bio-tech research and development will drive facilities design and associated infrastructure development around the country. States best positioned for these developments are primarily Massachusetts, Colorado, and California, and also Utah, New Mexico, Maryland, and Delaware. EPC and commissioning firms serving this sector are expecting continued top-line and bottom-line growth well into 2021. Their big challenge?  Finding qualified staff to meet the demand.

Could 2021 be another great year for the industry? It certainly looks like many firms are once again entering the new year with record backlogs to carry them through the first half of the year.  Not all sectors, of course, will be as robust— but there is plenty to suggest that 2021 could be another very good year for firms that have positioned themselves in the right markets.

This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s website. Morrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.


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