Investment in infrastructure: T&M’s Gary Dahms says federal funds have reshaped engineering … and AI is next to reshape it

Two years ago, New Jersey officials hailed the federal government’s $1 trillion earmarking of infrastructure dollars as a game-changer.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would, over the 18 months following its November 2021 introduction, become the backdrop for a reported $5.7 billion in planned infrastructure spending across the state.

Has it changed the game? Gary Dahms, CEO and president of T&M Associates, believes so.

In full transparency: Due to the network of agencies that infrastructure funding gets funneled through, businesses consulting and engineering firms, such as T&M, can’t usually tell when a project is the direct result of this new funding pool.

But, Dahms still has a gauge on how active the market has gotten over the past two years in New Jersey, as well as what the next few years might hold. He also has some thoughts on the future of his industry amid the recent influx of work in the sector.

Here’s him detailing those trends with ROI-NJ. …

ROI-NJ: From the perspective of your Middletown-based firm’s work, what sort of impact have you seen from the federal government’s infrastructure funds?

Gary Dahms: We’re seeing the impact of it not only in New Jersey, but, as a national firm, across the country. It’s impacting where it was expected to impact the infrastructure world: transportation, water, sewer, utilities and broadband. The last numbers from the federal government I saw reported that 25% of the money has been allocated from the initial offering. That’s good. It’s getting out there. And it’s not surprising, really. A lot of that money was going toward shovel-ready projects, those designed and permitted and just waiting for construction funding. As we go forward, you’ll get more and more funding in the design side of things to continue to build up a pipeline of new construction projects.

ROI: Has the deployment of those dollars had the effect of introducing any new challenges for firms in your sector?

GD: For not only me, but other presidents and CEOs of engineering firms, it’s the shortage of talent in the hiring world. We’re looking for enough engineers, architects, designers, scientists, etc., to generate the plans needed to support the construction and utilize these funds that are out there. In many ways, it starts probably in the high schools and the kids going into engineering and architecture schools from there. There has been a decline of that over the years. So, it’s not like we can go out and find these missing people — they just aren’t there right now. What that’s doing is forcing the professionals to explore other options. One is to utilize more of the trade schools and hire those graduates to help on work that needs to be done on a non-professional level, instead of having the professionals for that. Another strategy, and it’s all the rage right now, is the use of (artificial intelligence). There is definitely a place for it in our industry. Because it’s so new, the world — and we in the engineering industry — is still learning about it and how to best use it. We’re still finding out how to use it to be more efficient and effective while also being safe and compliant with the design standards we have. There’s going to be a use for it, though, definitely, in filling some of the void in the lower supply of engineering students. We’re already feeling the pressure of this need to attract talent. And you’ve got to come up with strategies to replace talent when you lose it. It’s a continuing and it’s a growing challenge, not a short-term blip that’ll get figured out over the next year or two.

ROI: How is AI being used already? And, doesn’t it come with its own talent needs — assuming you need to hire specialists to operate these systems?

GD: Well, back in the ’80s, there were people whose job it was to take the engineers’ designs and draw it on paper to make plans. With the advent of AutoCAD, or computer-aided drawings, you could translate engineering design into drawings with technology and, so, you didn’t need people drawing it out. That allowed you to do it at exponentially faster speeds. That’s happening now with AI, but we are still in the process of getting approved and taking the right calculations. AI can potentially do these designs, and do the drawings. But, we don’t have enough evidence or the assurance that the thought process put into it by AI is the same one that’s needed to do it in accordance with our standards. We also don’t have the agencies that would be responsible for professional engineers accepting the use of AI in designs. For a project to be designed, it has to be reviewed and signed off on by professional engineers and registered architects. Professional standards have to be met that ensures plans are in accordance with all laws, standards and specifications. We don’t have yet a system set up for AI plans to be approved in the same way. We have to make sure these systems are used effectively, safely and for protection of the ultimate users of that road, bridge, building or other project. Right now, there’s certainly a lot of ways to use it on a rudimentary level to replace redundant tasks involved with every design project. And it is true that we have — and every sizable firm in engineering has — an IT department to help the company utilize technology, data, automation or communications. And AI is going to require experts who are not engineers, but experts in these emerging technologies to manage our AI systems. The way we see it, as our capacities with data, IT and AI expand, we’re getting expertise that we can use not only internally but, also, we can use it to help clients. For clients that may not be in position to have full-time departments or experts in this, we see this as a service we can provide to clients in the future.

ROI: Heading into 2024, and as more of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds get gradually released over the course of it, are you still in the same optimistic mood you might have been when these federal dollars were first given the bipartisan green light?

GD: The outlook for infrastructure is very bright across the country — and, really, across the globe. Part of why it’s very bright is because of the funding that’s being made available, as well as the continued focus by the media on the infrastructure needs that exist. We see a continuing demand for broadband. The whole e-commerce world we live in, where people want to order something and have it delivered that night or the next day, is so dependent on transit, ports (and) rail. All that is just a long-term opportunity for our industry. Personally, my favorite part is, many of the roads and bridges designed 100 years ago, at the end of their useful life, finally getting a reliable funding source to help upgrade, replace and renovate them. Doing that for our critical infrastructure is going to be a benefit to the economy as well as peoples’ safety, well-being and quality of life.