Interactive Webinar Addresses AEC Challenges During Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unforeseen challenges to all aspects of life, including economic hurdles for leaders in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.

To help address these obstacles, Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program hosted “Challenges on the AEC Horizon,” its first interactive webinar, on July 23. 

“The world in general, and our profession in particular, has never experienced anything quite like this epidemic in our lifetimes,” said EMDC program director Raymond Krizek, Stanley F. Pepper Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Bringing four eminent leaders from the design, construction, consulting, and finance industries together for the webinar “was certainly beneficial for everyone to learn how some of the profession’s most successful individuals view the situation and their thoughts on how to cope.”

During the 90-minute panel discussion, attended via Zoom by more than 70 people and moderated by Northwestern Engineering adjunct professor Karen Layng, C-suite executives placed the current situation in perspective and provided meaningful ideas on how to address current and future business practices.

Increased demands on AEC projects now challenge the industry. Even before the spread of COVID-19, labor shortages, climate concerns, and cyber sabotage led to compressed project schedules. Amid the pandemic, these demands have escalated.

The challenges raised by COVID-19 are both different and similar to past difficult economic times, said Robert Frentzel, president and managing director of specialized industries for CIBC Bank. Unlike the Great Recession, there is still access to capital. Yet, consistent with other recessions, it will take around 12 to 18 months before the real impact hits. However, it’s still too early to see how hard a hit the construction industry will endure, he said. 

“How do you anticipate 2021-22 when that uncertainty is going to be the biggest challenge for (contactors, engineers, and architects)?” Frentzel said. “The biggest concern is, how do you retain labor in this marketplace but also reduce costs? Because you’re probably not going to have the same revenue to run your business.”

Also discussed were best business practices in these uncertain times. Pressing concerns included employee safety, technology, cybersecurity, financial trends in construction, and the overall economy. 

“My hopes are that mortgage rates stay low, whether it’s industrial or residential, so there’s access to cash so that we can move forward and get projects implemented faster,” said Christopher Burke, founder and CEO of Christopher B. Burke Engineering. “If you look at the last recession, that was not available, that was a constraint, probably rightfully so, and that caused us to spiral out of control.”

Justin Brown, president and CEO of Skender Construction, addressed cybersecurity by stressing the importance of vigilance when processing payments.

“Just because the computer says it is so doesn’t mean it is,” Brown said. “Pick up a phone. You need to have a relationship with people and pick up the phone and just ask (if a payment went through). You might think it’s a dumb question; it’s not.”

Christian Burger, president of Burger Consulting Group and adjunct professor in the EMDC and Master of Project Management programs, said he was “honored to recently participate in a panel discussion with senior colleagues from the industry.” 

“We covered the gamut in what felt like a fast-paced 90-minute session,” Burger said. “I recommend watching as you will see mature and thoughtful responses to probing questions on post-COVID world, economics, technology, banking, risk, and other important topics."

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