Most of our nation’s key infrastructure projects were created between the 1930s and the 1950s to both fight the adverse consequences of the Great Depression and kickstart the U.S. economy post-World War II, helping put Americans back into the workplace and confirming our political and economic leadership in the world. The nation’s economic engine carried on a construction binge, putting thousands of people to work and creating some of the foremost infrastructure projects that still characterize the U.S. today – from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Lincoln Tunnel and many more.
However, the American we recognized then is not the America we know today. Our population has exploded, producing additional pressures on our infrastructure. This growth, joined with increasing social accountability and sustainability concerns, has generated more calls for technology to speak to our infrastructure wants and needs. Plus, even the soundest civil works must be maintained, repaired and updated over time – not just to work properly but to respond to the rising call for more sustainable and efficient manners of operating.
Concurrently, Covid-19 has upset key sectors of the U.S. economy, including the construction industry, where 75 percent of contractors recounted undergoing a project termination or postponement because of the pandemic. Such project suspensions and cancellations equate to higher unemployment, interrupted supply chains and a drop in profits as contractors attempt to steer through a tentative business atmosphere.
The passage of the infrastructure bill
In response, on August 10, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. A bit later, the House of Representatives also put its stamp on the infrastructure package. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, this is an enormous triumph. The ASCE has been pushing for investment in our infrastructure for a very long time. They issued the 2021 Report Card for America’s infrastructure and 11 out of the 17 infrastructure groupings were given a grade of “D”. We in the Pittsburgh region know all too well when, on the very day that President Biden was in Pittsburgh to address the need for the infrastructure program, we witnessed the collapse of the Forbes Avenue bridge over Fern Hollow Creek.
So, how does this infrastructure bill impact the construction industry?
According to Moody’s Investors Service, the passage of this legislation could mean a 5 percent boost in U.S. construction spending this year and another 5.5 percent increase in 2023. These growth rates would be about two percentage points greater than the spending upturns minus the bill.
It’s projected that shovels will not be in the ground for several more months. However, a report from the White House on November 6, 2021, approximated the bill will produce 1.5 million jobs per year over the next ten years.
So, what should be the construction industry’s immediate response? Regardless of the amount of dollars projected to be spent, construction companies need to take into account what a boost in project demand might indicate for their business. Even now, a number of construction firms whose balance sheets may well be too small or who don’t wish to take on all the risk, are arranging joint ventures or partnerships to bid on hefty projects that are predicted to stem from the bill.
Construction firms need also mull over changing workforce needs. The industry has witnessed a scarcity of skilled workers since the previous recession, and as project demand is waiting to spike, enlisting and training a workforce with the necessary skills will be crucial.
Restoring America’s Global Hegemony
Investing in infrastructure isn’t only an urgent domestic concern but a matter of international significance. China only recently revealed a $1.4 trillion plan for technology infrastructure, to include 5G wireless networks, cameras and sensors, cloud computing services and artificial intelligence, slashing their need for external technology and positioning them as the front-runner in the global tech race.
Chinese investment in forward-looking technology and wireless communications is projected to boost projects in the areas of housing, high-speed railways, autonomous driving and manufacturing.
The nation has also set up an impressive 15-year plan called “China Standards 2035”, a set of global tech benchmarks that shadows a previous plan for global manufacturing supremacy. If triumphant, it could position the U.S. even more in arrears at a time when it can least afford to do so.
Economic stimulation through job creation
An infrastructure bill would bring skilled workers back into the fold and assist displaced workers in moving into established career paths with prospects for advancement.
Investing in infrastructure should also appeal to a newer generation to enter the construction industry, helping to overcome the labor shortage that has beleaguered the industry of late. Since the pandemic has seriously affected employment for younger adults, investing in infrastructure should improve employment opportunities for that portion of the population while also boosting the construction industry, which is witnessing the retirement of baby boomers.
Young adults could also be incentivized into enlisting into the construction sector if they were informed of the emphasis on technology, including automation, robotics and software. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, technology is converting the construction industry, shifting it from a tech straggler to an innovating tech front runner.
When you visualize a construction project, you probably think about hardhats moving mechanical equipment from place to place, together with numerous jackhammers, excavators and the like. What you won’t really “see’ is the technology behind it, which embraces state-of-the-art hardware and software that is linked allowing each project to be accurately designed, supervised, built and ultimately handed over to its owners.
As a prime example, one merely “sees” road-paving equipment laying new asphalt, whereas inside the cab, the operator is employing cutting-edge machine control, supported by rich design models being dispatched from engineers to operators in near real time, informing them precisely where the asphalt should be placed and how much needs to be poured. This is verified via back-office personnel who may well be hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. The interior cab of specific brands of equipment may also contain augmented reality, empowering the operator to view the road design via an intuitive, easy-to-use system, improving safety, productivity and clarity. These devices have been especially helpful during the pandemic, as they allow project engineers to supervise sites from a distance, employing remote visualization capability.
However, companies need to make sure their employees can utilize this kind of technology, which has been somewhat achieved by revealing the most recent hardware and software solutions to college students and by asking local unions to train workers as part of their apprenticeships.
Educational stimulation among universities.
The increased need for skilled talent in the architectural and engineering fields may also push higher education to improve and endorse additional construction related degree programs. Forward-thinking AEC firms are creating partnerships with universities to fund research, foster innovative programs and mentor students. The University of Florida is among the academic establishments that invite AEC firms to co-sponsor classes and encourage their executives to be guest lecturers, review research plans and handle jobsite tours for students. AEC firms are also sources of capital to keep alive a school’s mission.
In a recent Forbes article, jobs in building information modeling (BIM) and virtual design and construction (VDC) are included in the emerging career options that are a focus of attention of both large and small institutions like Purdue University and Georgia Highlands Colle. Students attracted to a career in technology may look at these programs as impressive options.
Tech opportunities are reshaping the industry
Since 1998, America’s infrastructure has merited a steady D- grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), though it improved a bit to C- in 2021. The ASCE revealed the nation is expending only half of what is needed to sustain its infrastructure – which in time will give rise to a substantial economic loss, greater costs to businesses, shoppers and manufacturers, plus public safety concerns. The report also approximates that the disparity between the nation’s infrastructure requirements and its probable spending on those needs is anticipated to exceed $2.6 trillion by 2029 and more than $5.6 trillion by 2039
Construction leaders will also need to do more than simply boost recruiting efforts and broaden their skill sets to continue to be competitive and keep pace with demand. Plus, they will need to persist in giving precedence to investing in technologies – artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, as examples, — and to put into action time- and cost-reducing tactics, such as offsite construction.
While executing one of these investments or tactics alone wouldn’t necessarily give a contractor a major competitive edge, as a whole, they produce greater overall efficiency.
Okay, where exactly is this investment in infrastructure being planned?
- $110 billion for roads and bridges. In addition to necessary construction and repair, the funding also helps pay for transportation research at universities, dollars for Puerto Rico’s highways and “congestion relief” for cities.
- $66 billion for railroads. Funding includes upgrades and maintenance of America’s passenger rail system and freight rail safety, but nothing for high-speed rail.
- $65 billion for the power grid. The bill would fund updates to power grid, laying thousands of miles of transmission lines, as well as money to thwart hacking of the power grid. Clean energy funding is also included.
- $65 billion for broadband. Includes funding to address the nation’s digital infrastructure and expanding access to reliable internet.
- $55 billion for water infrastructure. This funding includes $15 billion for lead pipe replacement, $10 billion for chemical cleanup and money upgrade the country’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems.
- $50 billion for cybersecurity and climate change. This funding will help protect infrastructure from cybersecurity attacks and also tackles flooding, wildfires, coastal erosion and droughts along with other extreme weather outcomes.
- $39 billion for public transit. Funding here supports improvements to public transit systems nationwide. The distribution also includes money to design new bus routes and help make public transit more available to seniors and disabled Americans.
- $25 billion for airports. This allotment provides funds for essential upgrades and expansions at U.S. airports. Air traffic control towers and systems would get $5 billion for upgrades.
- $21 billion for the environment. These dollars would be used to clean up superfund and brownfield sites, abandoned mines and old oil and gas wells.
- $17 billion for ports. Fifty percent of the funds would go to the Army Corps of Engineers for port infrastructure. Other funds would go to the Coast Guard, ferry terminals and reduction of truck emissions at ports.
- $11 billion for safety. Appropriations here are to tackle highway, pedestrian, pipeline and other safety concerns with highway safety receiving the lion’s share of the dollars.
- $8 billion for western water infrastructure. Continuing drought conditions in the west will be addressed through monies dedicated to water treatment, storage and reuse facilities.
- $7.5 billion for electric vehicle stations. The Biden administration asked for this funding to build significantly more charging stations for electric vehicles across the U.S.
- $7.5 billion for electric school buses. With an emphasis on bus fleet replacement in low-income, rural and tribal communities, this funding is projected to let those communities switch to zero-emission buses.
If your firm is going to be participating in any of these infrastructure projects, you’re invited to contact us to help you navigate through the maze of regulations and paperwork.