Joseph A. Fiordaliso, head of the state’s engineering trade association, has a long list of kudos to dole out.
The president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of New Jersey feels there’s rarely been a more exciting time for infrastructure in New Jersey, he said, between the actions taken by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and the infrastructure push on the federal level.
It’s a unique time in the history of engineering firms; but not all of what makes now unique is deserving kudos.
“On one hand, you’ve got this opportunity to really give ourselves the type of infrastructure that fuels our economy and helps people get to work,” Fiordaliso said. “But there’s also trends keeping those in the sector up at night, such as the fact that we’ve got a workforce that is barely capable of turning out that work today.”
When it comes to the investments set to arrive in tomorrow’s infrastructure market — capital funding for transit agencies across New Jersey, engineering-heavy offshore wind projects, new wastewater infrastructure plans and, of course the $1 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden is expected to sign later this year — he’s asking:
“How well-equipped and adequate will that workforce be when billions of dollars of additional investments are introduced to the state?”
Fiordaliso, who served as chief of staff to the New Jersey commissioner of transportation under Govs. Richard Codey and Jon Corzine and is now CEO at public affairs firm NorthStar Strategies, said it’s not just that the New Jersey Department of Transportation‘s staff is a shell of what it was when he was there.
That’s just the beginning of the labor attrition that every segment of the engineering sector is experiencing.
From where Fiordaliso sits from his engineering trade post, an opportunity he leaped at 11 years ago when the organization needed a bottom-up overhaul, he sees that workforce attrition — as veteran engineers age out without replacements — extends into private-sector work, too.
“Our schools and higher education institutions are simply not turning out enough engineers who are then coming into this profession,” he said, “and that’s not a criticism, just a reality.”
With a number of well-known colleges for engineering, New Jersey is the oft-touted home of talent.
Fiordaliso will say nothing to the contrary.
“But, anecdotally speaking, if you’ve got someone who graduates from Stevens (Institute of Technology), and they can either work for a local engineering firm, and make a certain amount, or go across the river and be guaranteed to pull in $120,000 at Goldman Sachs on Day One,” he said, “that’s a decision they’re going to make.”
It’s getting harder to pull talent into civil engineering positions for other reasons, mostly owed to the increasing diversity of high-tech engineering roles in the private sector.
“You have students studying engineering who want to graduate and work for Google, they don’t want to design, operate and maintain hard-asset pieces of infrastructure,” he said.
It’s hard to complain too much, however, when the whole problem stems from business being so good for engineering firms.
Brian Murphy, a principal in the site and civil division at Toms River-based FWH Associates, said that, after the temporary freeze at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, his engineering firm got busier than ever.
That uptick might be carried further by the rollout of dollars from the federal infrastructure plan, but the effect will not be immediate, he said. Even assuming it’s soon implemented, it takes a long time for those projects to be shovel-ready.
By then, Fiordaliso expects the workforce shortage will still be a talking point. But he hopes that more up-and-coming professionals have the service time and man-hours to be licensed for a boost in engineering work.
“And, farther out than that, to continue to have the expertise and ability to deliver the products needed by the public and private sector, we need to be doing everything possible to encourage STEM education not only at lower levels of education, but higher, as well, and then also to create incentives and opportunities for graduates to pursue that civil engineering career once they leave school,” he said.