Persevering Through the Pandemic
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
HARRIS COUNTY ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT
It has been nearly eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping through the US, creating both new and harsh realities. And there’s the daily reminder of the loss of lives and uncertainty around when conditions will get definitively better. Social distancing, wearing masks, safety and testing protocols, and more reliance on technology for safer communication and conducting business have become routine.
NSPE members and professional engineers, just like everyone else, are trying their best to persevere through both personal and work-life challenges brought on by the pandemic while maintaining optimism about the future.
At the beginning of the pandemic, construction and field work for the Markosky Engineering Group Inc., based in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, was halted for several weeks because of stay-at-home orders. Parts of the business, which has offices in Ohio and West Virginia, suffered due to project delays, says President Joyce Markosky, P.E.
While projects are back on, firm leaders are closely watching developments in infrastructure funding, at both the national and state levels. “At the beginning, much of my time was devoted to navigating the rapid changes in regulations and guidance from the states where we operate. Now that things have settled down a bit, we are now into more of a routine,” says Markosky.
That routine involves navigating a work environment where staff members maintain a schedule of a few days of on-site work, while others have positions that require them to be in the office full-time. Joyce Markosky’s greatest concerns are with challenges around recruitment and hiring as well as mentoring less experienced staff members, particularly with the technical and leadership skills acquired through face-to-face interaction. “The casual, side-by-side kind of teaching and learning that takes place in an office environment is not happening as much now. We are looking for ways to provide casual learning opportunities while operating remotely or on staggered schedules.”
During the early weeks of the pandemic, Stocks & Taylor Construction Inc., experienced a slowdown of bid solicitation activity and design-build opportunities. One project was put on hold for an indefinite period and another project’s scope was reduced because of the pandemic, says Bryan Stocks, P.E., owner and vice president of the Washington, North Carolina, firm.
The firm’s daily operations have also been affected because of the added responsibilities to adhere to safety precautions that minimize spread of the coronavirus. This includes monitoring health agency recommendations and changes in state laws and requirements. The firm limits visitor access inside the office and there is signage at all entry doors about mask wearing and good hygiene practices. Stock anticipates that remote meetings and online collaborations will be a continued practice.
Despite the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought, Stock feels positive about the firm’s workload for the rest of the year and going into 2021. “We feel our team has adjusted well to the changes, and some are allowing us to operate with better efficiency and clearer communications,” he says. “Our [project] opportunities are currently strong despite the uncertainty around the unknown length of the pandemic and the upcoming election.”
COVID-19 is still having an impact on the business sector due to regulations and some project delays, but there is growing optimism about better conditions. According to a US Chamber of Commerce construction index released in September, 82% of contractors reported a moderate to high confidence that the US market will provide sufficient new business opportunities in the next 12 months, up from 72% last quarter. While 60% of contractors believe that their revenues will remain about the same in the next 12 months, with 22% expecting an increase.
In Canton, Ohio, work for CivPro Engineering LLC has remained steady, says President and CEO Keith Dylewski, P.E., P.S., with a nice mix of private and public clients. The only significant difference in the firm’s operations has been following an increasing number of pandemic health orders.
Dylewski doesn’t anticipate any long-term changes in how the firm operates. One benefit is that staff members have become more efficient at working remotely. “Everything I have seen to this point does not give me a sense that our workload will drop off,” he says. “On the private side, with money being so cheap to borrow, developers are taking advantage and moving forward with construction. Our view remains positive.”
Rising to a Public Safety Challenge
While AEC firm leaders may be seeing some positive signs on the horizon for their business development and projects, the experiences of engineering professionals working in city and county governments can be vastly different. When the pandemic began, COVID-related emergency orders meant that government employees had to switch gears to not only implement safety standards for agencies and facilities but also the public at large.
HARRIS COUNTY ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT
In Texas, NSPE member John Blount, P.E., and his engineering staff have been essential in Harris County’s government response to COVID-19. As the county engineer, Blount lead activities that included setting up layouts and traffic-control plans for public coronavirus testing sites and establishing a remote medical facility that could be used if hospitals became overwhelmed with patients. He also led a cross-departmental team to minimize the risks for virus transmission by creating procedures and providing retrofits of facilities that needed to remain open for essential government functions.
Blount is proud of how well his team has adapted during the pandemic by implementing and learning new tools. “With a few exceptions, staff are now working from their homes, and managers have created processes to ensure that work continues to be performed as it was prior to the pandemic. Without exception, our staff rose to the challenge, and most of our work has not suffered.”
Blount hopes that a year from now a safe and effective vaccine can be widely distributed and open options for future work environments. “If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it is that we are seeing the possibilities as to how a remote workplace can function and be incorporated into regular practice.”
The US economy remains a challenge as individuals, businesses, and state and local governments alike await negotiation and approval of a second coronavirus relief fund package by Congress. According to Moody’s Analytics, state and local budgets have a shortfall of nearly $450 billion for fiscal years 2020–22 because of the pandemic’s strain on the economy.
In a recent US Conference of Mayors survey, most mayors indicated that they expect operating budgets to decline over the next 12–18 months because of the pandemic and economic recovery will depend on containing and preventing spread of COVID-19. Their top investment priorities for recovery include investing in infrastructure to generate employment and economic growth and expanding delivery of city services online and virtually.
County government leaders reported that they anticipate a $202 billion impact to their budgets into the 2021 fiscal year, which could lead to widespread economic consequences and job losses, according to a National Association of Counties report. More than 70% of counties have cut or delayed capital investments and infrastructure projects and 68% have cut or delayed county services. This is all attributed to a decline in sales tax revenue with expectations of future shortfalls in property tax collections.
Since March, face-to-face interaction for employees at city hall in Leawood, Kansas, has been limited, says NSPE member Brian Scovill, P.E., who serves as city engineer. The building is closed to the public and nearly all meetings are held virtually, with staff working from home as needed. To safely accommodate on-site work, facility staff modified office spaces to increase separation and made HVAC improvements to help with air purity. And, as in many offices, masks, clear wall partitions, and hand sanitizer stations are in use.
To prepare for a different business and economic environment, the City of Leawood purchased software to provide improved online permitting and online payments and make requests for inspections. Some projects have been delayed because of the COVID-19 shut down. Due to a drop in sales-tax revenue, a five-year capital improvement plan had to be reprioritized, adds Scovill, and budgets will be adjusted to match fluctuations in construction costs and tax revenues.
Reimagining Engineering Education
As a graduate student at Penn State University, NSPE member Christie Hasbrouck, E.I.T., spends the bulk of her time conducting lab research. In March, the pandemic forced a shutdown of in-person activities, and she was limited to tasks that could be done safely from home, such as literature reviews and data analysis.
Because of a delay in implementing a plan for a safe return to on-site research, some of Hasbrouck’s group research projects needed a no-cost extension to complete the lab work by the contract deadlines. “Since being allowed to return to campus, the priority has shifted back to lab work because we are unsure if there will be another local outbreak that forces us to shut back down,” says Hasbrouck, who is pursuing both a master’s and a doctoral degree in industrial and manufacturing engineering.
Since most research can’t be done remotely, Hasbrouck foresees a return to some version of normal activity in the upcoming year. Because of COVID safety precautions, researchers are encouraged to have only two individuals in the lab at the same time. They are required to sign in and out, keep a record of machine use and sanitation, and rotate the researchers in the lab as much as possible. “I also see a strong possibility for a greater investment in our online degree programs,” she says, “considering the vast improvements in video conferencing resources and other interactive online tools for classroom settings.”
Much of engineering is hands-on and project-based, but COVID-19 safety restrictions are requiring faculty and students to become more flexible and reimagine how engineering education is carried out. Last spring, life for NSPE member Jeffrey Pike, P.E., and his undergraduate students at Louisiana Tech University dramatically changed when they had to switch from face-to-face instruction to alternative styles of teaching and learning because of the pandemic.
Pike believes that one of the greatest strengths of engineering education is the problem-solving approach. With the transition to remote learning, he has witnessed students become innovative problem solvers. “They brainstormed and explored existing solutions. They found many ways to interact through Moodle Student Forums, Zoom or Skype calls, Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive, just to name a few. And, of course, they always had the options of telephone, email, and text messaging,” says the senior lecturer in the civil engineering and construction engineering technology programs.
When a stay-at-home order was issued in March, faculty at the University of South Alabama in Mobile went into crisis-management mode, says Eric Steward, Ph.D., P.E. During the final months of that semester educators focused on delivering the best content that they could for their students. “I was fortunate that geotechnical engineering faculty around the country and the world banded together to share content such as YouTube videos of lab experiments, test questions, and ideas,” says the associate engineering professor and graduate program coordinator in the Department of Civil, Coastal, and Environmental Engineering.
University faculty used the summer period to enhance their ideas and use technology to prepare for the fall semester. But nothing is the same, says Steward. Students were required to take a COVID test before returning to campus. Classroom size is restricted for in-person attendance, with social distancing and mask mandates, while courses must be streamed online. This option is available for students who have health concerns and for students who have contracted or been exposed to the coronavirus and must quarantine.
Steward predicts that the university will continue with this hybrid model, except for lab experiments, for the near future. Yet, he can’t shake that feeling of invigoration when directly engaging in the classroom. “I wasn’t aware of how much I needed to be in front of students teaching,” he says. “That has created a direct transfer of passion and excitement to the students about engineering.”
The pandemic has shifted June Schneider, Ph.D., P.E.’s thinking about how engineering education can be delivered to her students at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, Louisiana. Prior to stay-at-home orders, she wasn’t sure about the validity of online engineering education due to concern that students wouldn’t grasp the concepts of some topics without face-to-face interactions. “It’s encouraging to know that within three weeks of producing over a hundred engineering lecture videos, students have adapted so well with this,” says Schneider, the assistant professor and program director for engineering. “The discussions were active, and the learning outcome was good.”
She adds, “Though I still enjoy classroom face-to-face connection, I am confident and comfortable about learning and teaching part of engineering online with our modern technology. We will continue to find creative ways to promote the project-based portion of learning.”
The safety of students, staff, and faculty is paramount during what remains a challenging time, says Jeffrey Pike. “Our university leadership has been very proactive and there is an effective testing, quarantine, and contact tracing program on campus,” he says. “Although I have no symptoms or concerns about COVID-19, I participated in testing on our campus with the encouragement of our university president for all of us to do so.”
The ability to use such a wide range of technology is making it possible to accomplish learning objectives. He’s confident that students will be able to successfully complete their degrees in a timely and effective manner while using this experience to be better engineers. “I hope and pray the crisis ends very soon, however, potential employers may observe an increased ability to problem solve in recent and future engineering graduates,” he says. “That would be a silver lining in what has been a dark cloud for many.”