American Public Works Association (APWA) CEO Scott Grayson likens the factors affecting municipal engineering and infrastructure in the United States to a perfect storm.
Together, these factors have created a chronic workforce shortage in his industry – and the ongoing pandemic in North America is making it difficult to resolve.
“Firstly, there has been a trend here during the pandemic called the Great Resignation where people have started thinking about what they truly want out of life and have subsequently decided to change careers,” he says.
“Secondly, many public works agencies in the US have a need for frontline workers, and that has prompted some of the workforce that would prefer to work remotely to resign.”
Others have resigned to protest the vaccine mandates that many municipalities have introduced for staff. Meanwhile, a notable number of larger employers have relocated to smaller cities during the pandemic and have poached local government workers.
This chronic shortage of workers, coupled with the budgetary strain caused by the pandemic, has exacerbated a shortage-within-a-shortage: a severe lack of asset management capability.
“Small and rural communities know that asset management can save them money in the long run, but they tell us they just don’t have the staff or money to invest in a comprehensive asset management plan,” says Grayson.
Similar issues are at play in Britain, according to John Thompson, the UK-based President of the International Federation of Municipal Engineers.
“Local authorities in the UK have been haemorrhaging staff recently – particularly senior staff,” he says, noting that the pandemic has prompted many longer-serving officers to retire early.
“Also, austerity has encouraged local authorities to cover off responsibilities in engineering with general staff rather than qualified engineers.”
With less money and fewer staff, many UK municipalities can do little more than the bare minimum for their constituents and communities. Asset management is being overlooked.
Meanwhile, in Finland, a significant amount of infrastructure is due for maintenance or replacement, creating a huge general need for municipal engineers.
“After the Second World War, nearly all the cities in Finland were rebuilt,” explains Ville Alatyppö, board member of the Finnish Association of Municipal Engineering (FAME).
“Many of those structures are now coming to the end of their life cycles.”
According to Alatyppö, patchy education for engineers in Finland is making the situation worse.
“What they teach at university is not sufficient for the needs of the industry,” he says.
“We are very worried about the mathematical skills of engineers, for example. And asset management training is completely absent.”
Alatyppö’s colleague at FAME, chairman Jyrki Paavilainen, believes the country could benefit from looking to Australia.
“What you have been doing down there with certification and qualification programs seems to be what we need here in Finland, too,” he says.
Grayson from APWA says funding for further education could benefit the United States greatly, as well.
“In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau launched the Investing in Canada Plan in 2016, which included an eight-year, $110-million program to help Canadian municipalities build asset management capacity through education,” he points out.
Although the issues that have created workforce shortages around the world differ, Paavilainen believes a collaborative cross-border approach would be of great benefit.
“The laws and principles of asset management are global,” he notes.
“If we can enhance the collaboration between countries to improve education and build capacity, we can make this little ball that we are all living on more sustainable. And that is good for everyone.”