Are Civil Engineers ‘Essential’ Personnel?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a new consideration of the word “essential.”

With much of the United States under shelter-in-place orders this month, different states have deemed different services and different professionals as being essential to the continued day-to-day life of society.

So where does civil engineering stand in that debate? Are civil engineers essential?

ASCE has spoken plainly that, yes, civil engineers should be considered essential personnel.

ASCE President K.N. Gunalan, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE, in a statement addressed to the National Governors Association – led by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – wrote:

“The 150,000 members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) applaud the leadership that the nation’s governors have displayed during the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the actions taken by each of you to keep Americans safe. As governors consider the most recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), ASCE asks that governors adopt the guidance … and designate engineering as an essential service in not only operating and maintaining critical infrastructure, but also for planned public works projects and the nation’s energy grid.”

The Journal of Light Construction lists 43 states as having designated construction work as essential (as of April 11).

Among them is South Carolina, where Jarred Jones, A.M.ASCE, is the executive director of the North Charleston Sewer District: “I just advertised a bid for a project at a plant, so we’re still moving forward with projects. In private development, there are a few that are slowing down, but a lot of it’s still being constructed and going up. I would definitely say civil engineers are essential, even in a pandemic.”

Civil engineering work on critical utilities, like those Jones manages, seems like an easy green light. Same too for work on hospitals and other makeshift healthcare facilities. But there are other maybe less obvious examples of essential civil engineering work.

In New York City, Tony Cioffi, P.E., F.ASCE, the Region 1 director on ASCE’s Board of Direction, has continued work, leading the Kew Gardens Interchange Phase 4 project as assistant resident engineer. It’s not difficult to make the case that it’s essential infrastructure – a major intersection of several key highways serving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every day.

“You know the history of the civil engineering profession is that we’re here to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public,” Cioffi said.

He sees it not just as the finished project being a protection to the public. There’s an even more immediate consideration.

photo of building construction
“You know the history of the civil engineering profession is that we’re here to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public,” ASCE Region 1 Director Tony Cioffi said.

“We’re 18 months into the project,” Cioffi said, referencing partially demolished bridges and deep excavation areas. “For us to close this project down for an indefinite period of time would pose safety issues to the general public. So it’s important that we continue … That’s not motivated by profits, but it’s motivated by our commitment to the safety of the general public.”

“Essential” can also mean bigger picture. The COVID-19 crisis reminded Tony Bartolomeo, P.E., ENV SP, Dist.M.ASCE, former CEO and president of Pennoni, of the economic downturn of 2008; at least in terms of how the civil engineering profession can learn from previous mistakes. The key, he said, is continuing to work now on longer-term projects.

“When things do break, we don’t want to be caught like we were in the Great Recession, where a big infusion of money went into a recovery effort that was supposed to be focused on infrastructure, creating jobs and longer-term beneficial impacts with renewed or new infrastructure to service our country,” Bartolomeo said. “But there were not ‘quote’ shovel-ready projects that were easily fundable, because the work hadn’t been done to get them to the point where you could start construction.

“That’s why I think it’s important at this point in time – continue the feasibility analysis and design, so you can keep the progression of the project moving to be able to create the construction opportunities promptly and get people to work and get the economy cranking again.”

The good news for many civil engineers is that the kind of design work Bartolomeo references is often well-suited to work-from-home arrangements.

Kristina Swallow, P.E., ENV SP, Pres.18.ASCE, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, has much of her staff working remotely this month. For those engineers whose work requires them to be in the field, NDOT has installed a variety of protocols to ensure their safety.

Because, ultimately, even as civil engineers are duty-bound to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, their health, safety and welfare are essential as well.

“These aren’t easy decisions,” Swallow said. “As you look across the landscapes of the states and the communities and the agencies, all have made the various decisions they needed to make to ensure that their teams stayed safe.

“But that’s an ongoing discussion, based on the information and the data we have, and will continue to be until we get out of this.”

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