Engineering firms were quick to respond by adapting altered working conditions when the coronavirus pandemic began in the United States, according to a series of Business Impact Surveys conducted by the research arm of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC).
The results, which were released last week, show that 90 percent of larger firms with more than 501 employees restricted travel as early as March 17. Seventy-three percent of smaller firms with 26 to 50 employees had shut down travel plans by that date.
Another change in working conditions included setting up work-from-home capabilities, the survey showed. Eight out of 10 firms had implemented a telework policy by March 17, with only 15 percent making it a requirement and 34 percent making it “as needed.”
Delays & Cancellations
The Business Impact Survey showed that almost half of the reporting engineering firms experienced delays or cancellations from the coronavirus epidemic. Seventy-one percent of large firms (501 employees or more) experienced these negative effects.
In another wave of surveys, the research institute found that by April 1, 70 percent of reporting firms had experienced delays or cancellations. Larger firms saw that percentage jump to 85 percent; smaller firms of 26 to 50 employees jumped from 47 percent to 74 percent.
Gauging Financial Stability
While 51 percent of responding engineering firms said they believe the PPP, which was included as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Securty (CARES) Act—the stimulus package signed on March 27—would have a positive impact on their business, larger firms felt better about the situation (86 percent), while smaller firms were “not sure.”
By the end of April, 87 percent of firms felt the overall U.S. economy was in worst shape as compared with March 1, but approximately 45 percent felt their company’s own cash flow was in bad shape—this was down from 54 percent when the same question was asked in an earlier wave of the Business Impact Survey series.
Some firms had taken actions to protect assets, including:
- Freezing nonessential purchases—50 percent
- Speeding up collections—38 percent
- Freezing salary/pay increases—30 percent
By late April, fewer firms felt the stimulus package had actually had a positive effect on their business—just 55 percent. Thirty-three percent said the package had had no impact at all. The survey results found this was due to “inadequate funding and the nearly immediate depletion of the Paycheck Protection Program in less than one week.”
While 84 percent of firms applied for PPP, only 74 percent received the assistance before the funds ran out.
Thirty-seven percent of firms believed business would get back to normal within six months, survey results showed. Thirty-five percent predicted it would take one to two years, while 21 percent were not sure or felt things would never be the same moving forward.
Only 21 percent of firms said there was a worker safety plan in place for reopening; 41 percent said their firm was working on one. Many firms said they were waiting for their state’s governor to give permission before reopening offices, and others said they would wait until they felt it was safe.
Safety measures that were planned for reopening included social distancing (87 percent) and allowing staff to continue working from home to care for others (84 percent).
“The Business Impact Surveys are the first of their kind to accurately measure our industry’s response to a real-time crisis,” said ACEC Research Institute Chair John Carrato. “The data collected from week to week enabled firm executives to plan with knowledge of how their peers were reacting to the economic shutdown and Federal assistance programs.”
“The pandemic was an unforeseen and unique challenge for our industry,” said Charles Gozdziewski, ACEC’s board chair. “Firm executives were forced into uncharted waters, adapting to forced changes to workplace operations, commuting, project work and financial planning. The Business Impact Surveys gave our members a roadmap to check their own planning against industry trends on a weekly basis.”
For more results from the survey, including subsequent waves that collected data through the end of May, visit acecresearchinstitute.org/research.