By Kayt Sukel

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in March, President Joe Biden promised the city of Baltimore that he and his team would “move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.” While much of the conversation about replacing this critical piece of infrastructure has centered on funding, there is another issue that must be addressed to keep Biden’s promise: hiring and retaining the appropriate workers to get the job done.

The civil engineering field faces a shortage not only of trained engineers but also of the supporting engineering technicians and technologists who help those engineers build, operate, and maintain our key pieces of civil infrastructure.

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“Like engineers, engineering technicians are vital and essential to broader infrastructure development,” said Joseph W. Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has been researching the impending infrastructure workforce crisis. “These aren’t just entry-level positions that can just be filled with anyone.”

With the changing nature of technician work, which today involves increased digitalization and automation, these roles are increasingly important parts of the infrastructure workforce. Acknowledging this, the field as a whole should be paying increased attention to them, especially as the country continues to fund projects through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

It’s clear, said Kane, that the greater civil engineering industry needs to think beyond simply recruiting and retaining the next generation of civil engineers. The industry must also find new and creative ways to hire the technicians and technologists who assist the engineers – and ensure they have the skills and expertise necessary to plan, design, and construct tomorrow’s bridges, tunnels, airports, and roadways.

Understanding the impact of the technician shortage

For some time, leading civil engineering firms have sounded the alarm about the ongoing engineering shortage – and how it could impact the industry’s ability to deliver high-quality infrastructure work in the future. But with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine predicting a shortfall of more than 3 million skilled technical technicians, new infrastructure projects will also suffer from a lack of experienced, multidisciplinary talent that support the engineers.

While technician jobs have been around for some time, Parminder K. Jassal, Ph.D., the CEO at Unmudl, a skills-to-jobs marketplace powered by the nation’s top community colleges, said that in many ways it is an “emergent and evolving role.” This is especially true now that companies want to see technicians with skills that cover not just basic engineering support but also those that help assist with information technology and electronics.

“Not having these roles for infrastructure projects is immense. If projects get awarded, firms may not be able to get started – or they may have to delay their start,” Jassal explained. “The emphasis has been, for so long, on just finding engineers. But it’s clear that we need to start thinking about how, as an industry and a country, we can produce the skilled technician talent we need too.”

John Kissinger, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, president and CEO of GRAEF, a private civil engineering and consulting firm based in Milwaukee, said that difficulty in finding experienced engineers has limited the company in its ability to take on certain projects. The lack of technicians is also proving problematic – so much so that GRAEF is looking to acquire another organization just to bring experienced technicians on board so the firm can continue to offer clients services like folding steel detailing into building design.

“This acquisition will allow us to acquire 10 (technicians) in one deal, rather than trying to hire them. Because trying to hire them could take forever,” he said. “There is some work we do that is very technician heavy, and if we can’t find more technicians to do that work, we will have to pick and choose where we can offer those services.”

A troubling trend

Kane said that many of the same factors that have led to the lack of civil engineers are also driving the growing retention issue with engineering technicians. Many technicians are retiring early or are moving to more lucrative industries. And companies continue to face challenges as they look to hire experienced engineering technicians because so many organizations are fishing in the same small pool of candidates.

“There are a variety of systemic and structural challenges to finding and training this kind of talent that are becoming glaringly obvious now that this shortage is in the spotlight,” Kane said.

Jassal said addressing this shortage requires “a multifactorial solution.” She said no single organization can do it alone, especially with the number of different infrastructure projects coming down the pike. Yet, she believes that community colleges and technical colleges can work directly with employers to find ways to bring new talent into the fold. To that end, Unmudl is working with companies that hire technicians and with the nation’s community colleges to better “modularize” skills so they can produce new technicians “just in time” to work on these new projects.

“The ramp-up time for technicians is anywhere from 12 to 30 months. That’s the length of time it takes to make them 100% productive. But it’s too long,” she said. “By working directly with employers to understand their needs, we can feed that information back to community and technical colleges so they can understand what kind of technicians they need to be producing – and also do it on a faster timeline.”

Providing a path to career success

Kane said there is also a larger role for community-based organizations, workforce boards, unions, and labor groups to address the shortage.

“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach here,” he said. “Because it’s not just about educating these technicians. It’s about providing a path for them once they are hired so they can continue to move up the ladder because we cannot even hold on to our current workforce.”

He recommended that more organizations “value” the technicians they already have – and provide opportunities for them to increase their skills and training so they can continue to advance in their careers.

“This isn’t just a youth workforce issue where we need to do proactive outreach and convince them to become technicians,” he said. “It’s as much a conversation about the current technicians and civil engineers you already have on board and asking how you can help them stay on top of what they need to know and do, so they are ready to move to the next level – and take on work for different projects too.”

Kissinger, for this part, once hoped that experienced technicians could help assuage the lack of midlevel civil engineers. But that strategy won’t work if the field doesn’t come together to produce more technicians too.

“Finding the right people for these jobs is a limiting factor,” he said. “But if we can do better in letting people know these are good jobs where you don’t need a four-year degree and can make a good living, we might do better in filling these roles. These individuals are very valuable to the process of delivering projects – and we need more of them.”

The article is published by Civil Engineering Online.