As Seen from UMass Amherst
by Thomas Huf
What 2022 will look like for higher education construction and new project development in the state and at UMass Amherst depends completely on how disrupted the institutions are financially as we enter the new year. Under the current uncertainty fueled by the overlapping Delta and Omicron variants of Covid, capital project funding and approvals are even more closely connected in the short term and in the long term to clear strategic sustainable planning for enrollment and operations. There is cause for cautious optimism as the flow of federal fund distribution commences to fill budget deficits.
The Massachusetts high tech economy remains, despite current challenges, among the most robust in the country. The Boston construction boom continues unabated. The demand for high tech workers and for cutting-edge applied research has a direct effect on higher education. Given that the total project time from needs assessment to occupancy can be three years or more, the rebound will continue beyond 2022 for the institutions like UMass Amherst where STEM and translational research play a large part both in the curriculum and in funded research.
In response to the public health crisis, UMass Amherst chose to take the blended route for course delivery and to restart research labs after a short pause to implement safe operating protocols. This strategy remains in place and has been successful in that the enrollment for the 2020/2021 year was down by less than 2%. Anticipating a return to the long term trajectory of growth in demand for engineering, computer sciences, and health and public health, the demand for facilities renewal and for additional space in these disciplines will continue to increase.
While the pause is behind us and even with Omicron casting new doubts, the catch-up is in motion and continues in higher education planning and construction. Supply chain disruptions are having a significant impact on costs and scheduling that are likely to abate in 2022.
Overall economic recovery and the ability of Governor Baker to distribute federal infrastructure funding to the UMass system to not only close the deficit but to provide capital and operational stimulus will determine the pace of educated labor supply coming from all institutions of higher education. This sector, according to Statsita, generates the third highest amount to the total gross economy (Real GDP) of Massachusetts after finance, real estate, and insurance and second most – professional and business services – that are also involved in higher education.
To keep a campus of 30,000 (that generates by far the largest number of Massachusetts graduates) operating and address new instructional needs, most of the many delayed projects are back on track for design completion, bidding and construction in 2022. The large backlog for designing and bidding urgently needed facilities in engineering, computer science, public health labs and nursing labs, and classrooms have restarted. These facilities will be implemented and in construction over the next two to three years. Commitment to implementing the campus and state carbon mitigation goals also fuels this surge.
Design and construction is what economists call a lagging industry for which the cycles track one to two years after the overall economic cycles. It is too early to see how Omicron will affect the future but it will not likely affect the 2022 cycle already moving at a high rate. How it will affect 2023 and beyond remains to be seen.
Thomas Huf is senior program manager at University of Massachusetts Amherst for facilities needs assessments and concept planning of capital projects.