In Three Rivers, engineers rehabilitated the historic arch bridge structure that provides access to Mineral King Valley. Photo provided by Cornerstone Structural Engineering Group.
Written by Breanna Hardy
Construction activity is rampant and money is expected to pour into transportation infrastructure. But there is a problem — there are not enough engineers to go around.
Mark Weaver, president of the San Joaquin Valley chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, said engineers with about five years of experience or more are hard to come by. He is also a senior engineer and co-owner at Cornerstone Structural Engineering Group in Fresno.
In past years, firms in the Central Valley saw engineers fresh out of college join the workforce with their Engineer in Training license under their belts. More recently, college graduates are not coming in having already passed the exam, which allows them to progress in their careers.
The trend has been on the rise since a few years ago, and the pandemic didn’t help.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads right now,” Weaver said.
Most building projects were halted during the pandemic. They are now resuming at the same time new projects are under way, creating a demand for more labor to complete them without enough experienced engineers.
Weaver said engineers with five to 10 years of experience can generally make decisions on their own and have already taken the Professional Engineer exam.
“Last year, a lot of projects just fell by the wayside. Everyone is really ramping up their work and projects wayside last year are top priority this year,” he said. “We’re trying to cram all of that work into a much smaller time frame.”
Working on these projects in bulk this year requires speed, which comes with experience.
“It has been a challenge for most firms to find good, qualified candidates,” Weaver said.
Right now, out-of-college candidates are filling low-level roles, but the cream of the crop — five to 10 years’ experience — is hard to find. This level of experience is where most of the work comes from on projects, he said.
But attracting people to civil and structural engineering is difficult, he said. Many critical engineering jobs aren’t attracting enough people. College engineering classes going virtual during the pandemic has only made it harder.
“We need to get more STEM students,” Weaver said.
STEM subjects include science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He said attraction to these college disciplines has to start in high school, otherwise interest might not stick.
Carmen Kasner, professional engineer and Southern California regional managing director for Florida-based engineering firm NV5, oversees land surveying across the state.
“Most people don’t realize the complexities involved in completing engineering projects,” Kasner said.
“It’s also very hard to keep women in the profession. Once they have children it’s hard to balance life and family,” Kasner said.
For the last five years, the lack of engineers has been getting progressively worse, and the Great Recession of 2008 was devastating, she said.
Young people tend to be more attracted to technology jobs, but there’s a lack of understanding that sometimes gets in the way of what engineers do.
“They don’t realize the effort and money it takes, the environmental processes it takes. We are balancing cost versus benefit,” Kasner said.
“It’s not the glamour of building apps and gaming and other high tech businesses,” Kasner added.
Ryan Carlson, principal of Lawrence Engineering Group in Fresno, said it’s not just civil or structural engineers facing the shortage of employees.
“I think our whole industry is facing kind of the same thing, which is just a shortage of technical workforce. And that’s engineers, that’s drafters, that’s kind of everyone,” Carlson said.
The firm does air conditioning, fire sprinkler and plumbing design. He said the firm has had ads out for months looking for anyone with experience.
“We’re trying to grow from within and hire interns and promote that way instead,” Carlson said.
He started to accelerate hiring in December when he saw the work was starting to pick up.
The firm deals with many institutions — including schools and government agencies — that are getting Covid-19 financial aid, and Carlson said they’re anxious to spend the money on new projects.
“For us that’s translating into new buildings or replacing HVAC equipment, and they’re anxious to do that as soon as they can, so everybody’s just busy — contractors, engineers, the whole industry,” he said.
For those who aren’t from the Central Valley, it’s tough to attract them here.
“It’s kind of a tidal wave of work right now,” he said.
Carlson first was attracted to this niche area of mechanical engineering through an internship in college. He enjoyed getting to see the start and finish of a project rather than just a small portion of the work.
He says it is helpful to attract local talent in the Central Valley in order to keep people local. He said it’s not as likely for graduates to come back from the coast or Southern California.
Miranda Patton, president elect of American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), California, believes that there was not enough early education and emphasis placed on engineering over the last few decades in schools. But Patton anticipates this changing in the future due to the emphasis on STEM education.
She brought up statistics that were presented at the 2018 Strategic Summit, which reported that women are more likely to leave the engineering profession, and 40% leave the engineering workforce by midcareer. A workplace diversity trend reported by “Entrepreneur Magazine” stated that negative workplace culture drives significant turnover as well, with 40% of employees citing harassment, bullying or stereotyping as a major reason to leave their firm.
“This is somewhat concerning as there are hopes for a big infrastructure spending bill from Congress, meaning there should be good deal of work in the near future,” said Brad Diede, executive director of ACEC. “So, to the extent that delayed exams may have reduced the potential number of engineers in the pool for employers to draw from, that is a problem.”