KC and the rest of the country are looking ahead to increased demand.
If you drove on a road or drank a glass of tapwater today, remember to thank an engineer. In some ways, their work can be invisible, but it’s also absolutely essential to modern society. Engineering firms not only facilitate major construction projects, in the process they support the safety, health and welfare of the general public.
Nationally, engineering services is a $206 billion industry, one that employs 1.04 million people, according to IBISWorld. It also happens to be something of a Kansas City specialty.
“Kansas City has probably got some of the most world-renowned engineering firms that range in size from the mega firms down to the smaller firms,” said Kristen Leathers, a principal at Affinis Corp. “It’s just known as an engineering mecca.”
Four Kansas City firms with a national reach—Burns & McDonnell, Black & Veatch, HNTB and Terracon—were among the top 40 firms on this year’s Top 500 Design Firms list from industry journal Engineering News-Record.
And that’s not counting firms that are headquartered somewhere else but have a presence in Kansas City.
“There are many, many others in the top 50 that have offices here in town,” said Derek Vap, an HNTB professional engineer and project manager and the president of the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers’ Western Chapter.
Smaller firms have enjoyed a strong 2016, too. TREKK Design Group, for example, is more than doubling the size of its local facilities and adding 16 staffers. Kansas City Testing & Engineering has absorbed another company and increased its head count by 30 percent.
“It’s been a great year,” said Elisabeth DeCoursey, Kansas City Testing & Engineering’s president.
Part of that’s due to an increase in construction around the Kansas City metro, driven by growth in intermodal activity, DeCoursey said. The economy has been on an upward trend since 2012, with demand really kicking off in 2014. The past year has been strong, and the next two to four years also look good, she added.
Across the country, engineering revenues have declined by an annualized rate of 2.1 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to IBISWorld. But it’s forecasting growth for the next five years as corporate profits increase, allowing companies to invest in major construction projects.
“In general, I would say the overall engineering sector is on the rise,” Vap said.
There are some areas that are lagging, though. As oil and gas prices have tumbled, so has the need for engineers who specialize in those kinds of projects.
Transportation projects, which often rely on federal and state government funding, have been slowed down, though several cities are using bond issues to move forward with infrastructure repairs and upgrades.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent “report card” on the nation’s infrastructure, about $3.6 trillion in investment is needed for roads, rail, wastewater and other critical elements.
“Taxes and utility revenues traditionally have paid for public infrastructure, and much of it is aged and needs repairs,” said Valerie McCaw, owner of VSM Engineering, which specializes in professional civil engineering. “No one has found a better way to pay for it. That can be unpopular.
“But something like 70 percent of local infrastructure elections are passed—people can see the local benefit. Both presidential candidates saw infrastructure as a huge issue, and they somewhat agreed on how to address this issue. Doing nothing is not an option either.”
WHY KC IS AN ENGINEERING HUB
To keep pace with increased demand, Kansas City engineering firms are adding staff members. The local job market for engineers is very strong right now.
“I would classify it as very good, just a notch below excellent,” said Dave McDowell, president of Austin Nichols Technical Search. His firm helps engineering companies recruit job candidates.
Kansas City has a particularly deep talent pool, and there are a couple of reasons for that, he said.
For one, Kansas City is located near several universities with accomplished engineering programs, including the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Missouri, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, among others.
And it helps to have several leading engineering firms based here. That density is attractive to engineers because they have multiple places where they can grow their career. “Engineering students know they can come to Kansas City and probably get a job,” DeCoursey said.
Of course, Kansas City’s high concentration of firms isn’t all silver linings. Because there are so many engineering firms based here, competition for some projects can be intense.
“But that just makes everybody work a little harder to do a good job,” DeCoursey said.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Infrastructure might not be a particularly sexy word. But in the coming years, Kansas City engineers are going to have the opportunity to solve new kinds of problems and come up with exciting solutions, especially if the incoming president makes good on his plans to boost infrastructure spending.
For example, more and more firms are thinking about how they’ll build roads, bridges and other structures that incorporate and interact with sensors, self-driving cars and other technology, Vap said.
The Midwest has also seen an increase in earthquake activity, and engineers are going to have to take that concern into greater account as they develop new projects, DeCoursey said.
Leathers of Affinis sees a new focus on building roads and other systems in a more targeted, more sustainable manner. Not every suburb needs a four-lane divided roadway or standard arterial streets. By building smarter, she said, municipalities can reduce the future cost of maintenance and upkeep.
There’s also been more interest in “multimodal” infrastructure—building communities that support bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as cars, she said. The goal is to make those communities better, more enjoyable places to live.
After all, engineering, for all of its technical questions, is ultimately about people. Affinis regularly helps build and rebuild streets in residential areas.
“It’s always fun to see how a new street can make everybody want to paint their house or maybe do some landscaping,” Leathers said.
‘I DELIBERATELY CHOSE KC’
Two of Kansas City’s most famous engineers, McCaw notes, actually moved here from California. Clinton Burns and Robert McDonnell got their start in Palo Alto and decided to relocate to Kansas City in 1898 because there was, in a 200-mile radius, a huge number of communities that needed help building water and power infrastructure.
What they and other engineers have built is a local engineering sector that continues to attract some of the nation’s finest engineering talent.
“I am a civil engineer, and a civil engineer can basically pick anywhere in the world to live and work,” McCaw said. “I deliberately chose KC.”