Engineering shortages

What will happen when the supply of materials and human resources runs out? How will the building and engineering community cope?

By Amara Rozgus, Editor in Chief September 25, 2018

My husband got a call recently from our mail-order pharmacy. A drug he takes regularly was not available in the dosage required; the pharmacy had no estimate of when its supplier might have more. They didn’t have very good options for him—they suggested he contact his doctor to ask if the physician could prescribe something different as an alternative. The pharmacy had only one supplier for this particular medication, which seemed like a poor business decision on their part.

That got me thinking: What if building materials suppliers run out of supplies? What if seemingly simple products, like screws or wiring, became unavailable? What if steel or concrete, chillers or generators, or fire alarms or lighting controls could not be procured by installers and contractors? What if, every time a specific automated transfer switch or variable refrigerant flow system or valve was specified, it was unobtainable?

Tariffs, taxes, and trade wars aside, this is an issue for building professionals at all levels. Both physical products and human resources just aren’t available at times—and no one has an answer as to when they might become accessible.

What can manufacturers and consultants do about this? On the manufacturing side, a reliable supply chain is a much broader discussion than can be had here. Like the mail-order pharmacy, reliance on one supplier obviously can hurt business.

While consultants don’t necessarily purchase the specific products for a building project, they are responsible for knowing whether a manufacturer can meet their client’s needs and provide the product or system required for the job. Plus, long-term system maintenance and support are a big part of the job. Like an antique vehicle or favorite game console, finding parts for older equipment can be a real problem.

On the human resources side, the number of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection (MEP/FP) engineers entering the workforce is slowing to a trickle. A building owner might have the same pharmacy-type problem some day: They’d call to request a specific type of expertise and rely on an engineering firm to design several buildings, but if there aren’t any engineers to do the job, the alternative is bleak.

This is a purely rhetorical discussion; I don’t have answers to any of these problems. We found a workaround to the mail-order pharmacy challenge. What will the workarounds in the consulting world look like? Please send me your ideas, manufacturers and building professionals. I’ll share them in an upcoming column.