The following are excerpts from an article by Gary Werner, science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, regarding stay-at-home orders and construction as an “essential activity.”
According to Professor Edd Gibson, the Sunstate chair of construction management and engineering for the Fulton Schools, “Construction is better positioned to address this situation than a lot of other sectors. People in this industry expect to wear protective equipment such as masks and gloves, and they are attuned to mitigating hazards on a day-to-day basis.”
Even so, extra vigilance may be required if coronavirus infection rates and death totals rise as expected during the coming weeks. “Construction as a whole won’t remain exempt from government orders,” Gibson said. “When conditions become bad enough in any given area, local authorities are going to narrow the range of permitted work. Certainly, medical facility development and utilities projects will continue. Also, emergency repair or maintenance work directly related to public safety, such as flood-control measures, will go ahead.
“If this pandemic is handled within a few months, it will likely be just a small blip for the construction industry,” said Tony Lamanna, the Sundt professor of alternative delivery methods and sustainable development in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “But if it continues and the backlogs of work run out, the industry will take even longer to bounce back, because even when the pandemic is over, business owners need to feel confident that they have the money to build something.”
Both Lamanna and Gibson also believe that COVID-19 could represent an inflection point for labor supply in the field of construction.
“We saw many mid-career professionals leaving the industry during the Great Recession of 2008, and they never came back,” Lamanna said. “Now older folks are starting to retire, so we are facing another gap in talent. An extended pandemic would likely cause even more mid-career people to leave.”
Gibson added that lack of labor has been driving a structural transition for the construction industry.
“Aspects of construction have been moving into a factory setting with a smaller, dedicated workforce and more automation. Their output is modular components that can be transferred to job sites for rapid installation,” Gibson said. “This shift has been in progress for several years, but the impact of current events likely will speed it up.”
Simultaneously, crisis creates opportunities that many companies are seizing. Gibson points out that a key success factor for any construction business is the ability to manage supply chains, and that skill is invaluable both immediately and moving into the future.
“If you are supporting the likes of General Motors, trying to refit factories to build ventilators, you are working 24 hours a day right now,” Gibson said. “As well, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with converting a huge number of sites across the country into temporary hospitals. And a lot of that work is being done by construction companies because they have the necessary logistics capabilities.”
Gibson also notes that when immunization solutions are developed for this virus, construction companies will be called upon to install equipment and reset production lines as pharmaceutical facilities are refurbished for manufacturing new drugs.
“COVID-19 will represent a significant challenge for construction,” Gibson said. “But we all can build on things that we are learning in the midst of this crisis. And in the end, I believe our industry will emerge even stronger than it is now.”