The engineer uncle of a once-college-bound Gary Dahms had sage advice to impart in the mid-1970s.
“He said, ‘The nation’s bridges were in deplorable condition,’” Dahms said. “’You’ll have a job for life in fixing and repairing the bridges that we drive over every day.’”
Approximately a lifetime later, he was right.
The CEO and president of the national engineering firm T&M Associates is one of those who has seen an influx of funding for aged, corroded and obsolete — plus any other descriptor you might use for century-old construction projects — roads, bridges and other infrastructure as sorely needed for many years.
Now, it’s here — in the form of $13 billion for New Jersey alone from the state’s cut of the federal infrastructure bill — but, as engineering and construction firms will tell you, so, too, are short-term unfavorable trends.
“One of the biggest challenges is going to be finding and hiring engineers and designers to do this work,” Dahms said. “It’s not just T&M, it’s an industrywide challenge. That labor issue is going to be the biggest impediment to maximizing the impact of this.”
Once the infrastructure bill’s spurred-on projects move out of planning and design and into the construction phase, it’s a different labor pool that will be called on. And one similarly stressed.
Nick Minoia of Diversified Properties, which has a large construction footprint on the private development side, said he expects the labor pool in the construction sector to be drafted into the coming public infrastructure projects.
But, it’s not as if the private side of the industry is overflowing with potential labor.
“Compounding the crazy price increases we’ve seen due to supply chain challenges is the labor shortage issue,” he said. “In our market, there’s just not enough people to really fully man all of the projects underway already at a full scale, and that’s before talking about the impact that the infrastructure bill projects might have.”
A dearth of heavy equipment operators and other roles in construction have been a yearslong issue, but the infrastructure bill brought it to the forefront.
At least on the union labor side, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 has endeavored for years before the spending package to attract fresh talent to those construction jobs.
Greg Lalevee, the business manager of the union, did clarify that some of that side of the labor pool won’t be called on immediately for projects brought by the infrastructure bill. He expects 2022 will involve a lot of permitting, as well as planning and engineering. Construction workers will be conscripted in the year following.
Overall, he struck a positive note. He’s thrilled about having this opportunity for New Jersey’s workers.
“And we have so much work to do on our infrastructure across the board,” he said. “Our roads need severe upgrades. We have 4,000 miles of roads that the engineering community will tell you need to be upgraded. We’ve got hundreds of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in need of rehab.”
Headwinds aside, organizations in both the engineering and construction trades expect upwards of a decade’s worth of work ahead of them, as they look at a six-year stretch of dollars from the infrastructure bill going toward projects, and years of wrapping up projects beyond that.
“For each and every one of our core practices, this has a huge positive impact on our business as well as improving the quality of life of our clients and communities,” Dahms said.