Leadership Views: Linda Bauer Darr, American Council of Engineering Companies
Name: Linda Bauer Darr
Position: President and CEO, American Council of Engineering Companies
Years with the Board: 7
Tell us about ACEC and its mission. What is your interest in being on the board of the TSC Institute?
ACEC represents the business of engineering. Our members are the engineering firms that are engaged in public and private markets involved in infrastructure, health care, technology, environmental work, and many other areas of the economy. In total, the engineering and design services industry contributes $198 billion to the U.S. GDP and supports 4.7 million jobs throughout the economy. Our mission is to advocate on behalf of these businesses and advance a business environment that enables our firms to deliver safe, impactful, and sustainable solutions to some of the nation’s most-pressing challenges.
Many of our firms are engaged in infrastructure work, and the goals of the TSC Institute align with many of our own. Our industry will thrive through information sharing and cooperation between the designers of the built environment and its suppliers, and the contractors who deliver the final projects. Being a board member of the TSC Institute helps foster that cooperation.
In your view, what are the most important skills and competencies necessary for leaders interested in advancing in the engineering and transportation industries?
Leaders in our field must be creative, open, and able to communicate their vision. Engineers do great things, but we don’t communicate them effectively enough. We get so focused on the project at hand that we tend to forget to talk about the impact it will have for a client, a community, or a nation. Effective leadership requires the ability to communicate a clear vision throughout the lifecycle of a project not only to keep your team engaged, but to build business for the next opportunity.
With the Infrastructure Act passed, what is your forecast for how and where activity and dollars will flow?
There is no doubt that the IIJA will bring new opportunities to our industry and for the nation – a recent ACEC Research Institute study found that 62 percent of responding firm executives believe new business opportunities will be created through passage of the IIJA.
The new law provides historic levels of investment in America’s infrastructure that will improve and revive our transportation networks, water and energy systems that will create jobs and sustain economic growth for years to come.
For much of the investment in the new law, funding for surface transportation, aviation and water programs are flowing through established formula programs that our client agencies understand, which is a good thing. We are actively working with Congress and the Biden Administration to ensure this investment flows as efficiently as possible, an effort that will require ongoing coordination between the ACEC national organization and our state organizations.
Above all, the IIJA presents a unique opportunity for our industry to demonstrate our essential value to society. This bill isn’t focused on “shovel ready” projects. We have an opportunity to design modern, forward looking resilient infrastructure that will stand up to extreme weather events and a changing environment. Engineers are problem solvers, so we are looking forward to leading and delivering on these challenges.
ACEC has a robust slate of educational opportunities. Can you tell us about the educational offerings at ACEC and why education is important to the Association?
ACEC is well-known for the educational programs we offer to engineers throughout their professional journey. We have a robust calendar of live in-person events and webinars that provide useful business education on everything from ethics to contracts to cybersecurity.
Beyond the classroom, ACEC offers its members the opportunity to engage with their peers by specialization through our Coalition groups to their demographic cohort through our Young Professionals group. For seasoned employees, we offer our Senior Executives Institute, which provides high-level exposure to established firm CEOs and our advocacy program.
We put a premium on education because our primary mission is to provide the tools, resources, and support to help our member firms’ businesses succeed and grow. As the trade association focused on the business of engineering, ACEC is uniquely positioned to help the industry thrive.
ACEC has a research institute. What topics are most important to your industry right now? What is on your mind in terms of thought leadership?
The ACEC Research Institute is a very potent weapon for our organization that delivers unique research tailored to the c-suites of the member firms we represent. Currently, the Institute is focused on several research products that are timely for where we sit in the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as benchmarking research to profile the size and scope of the engineering design services industry and measure its economic contribution to the American economy.
This month, the Institute released its newly updated Engineering Business Sentiment study, which surveyed more than 600 executives to glean insights into their outlook for their firms, the industry, and the larger economy. We found that despite inflationary concerns, our industry is extremely optimistic about their firms. For example, The Net Rating for the current state of firms’ overall finances is a staggering +88 and +82 for the engineering and design services industry today. As a comparison, in the first sentiment survey conducted in October 2021, those numbers were +83 for firm finances and +74 for the industry.
Aside from this up-to-date economic research, the Institute is focused on producing long-term reports on the importance of Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) and Design/Build. These are two areas of great concern for our members to combat the threat of commoditization of engineering services.
Everyone is being impacted by bottle necks in the supply chain. Does this issue impact ACEC members? How?
Bottlenecks in the supply chain are driving up the costs for materials, which bleed into overall project costs. This is something our member firms aren’t feeling the full impacts of, but they are paying attention and are sensitive to it. While our sentiment study showed our member firm executives are extremely optimistic about our industry, they were less so on the macroeconomy. Inflation and supply chain issues are fueling this uncertainty.
At the same time, there is opportunity to be found here. According to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index (via Forbes), global e-commerce sales should reach $4.2 trillion globally in 2021, with U.S. consumers accounting for nearly one-quarter of that spending. This is a continuation of a trend, as detailed in the 2020 Transportation Statistics Annual Report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT). The report notes that e-commerce sales increased 20-fold between 2000 and 2019. In 2018 the nation’s transportation system— supported by infrastructure—moved about 51 million tons of goods worth $51.8B each day; 2018 represented a 4% increase over 2016. Container ships are getting larger, both to meet demand and to take advantage of the 2016 expansion of the Panama Canal. Larger ships require ports with deep-water drafts, ample overhead clearance, and intermodal connections—such as double-stack rail service. Continued investments will be made, supported by the newly signed into law Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), to improve such infrastructure and increase the resiliency and capacity of the supply chain. Our firms will be designing those improvements to ease supply chain pressure.
What is one thing (or two or three) you would tell someone who is thinking about a career in engineering or transportation?
Aside from focusing on the technical skills necessary for a career in engineering, I would tell someone thinking about a career in the field to think about the impact they could have as an engineer. It’s a noble profession. We make things better on a grand scale. Engineers improve and innovate. They see opportunities when presented with challenges. The work our member firms do help people and improve lives from something as small as a shorter commute to big things like cleaner air and water. Our work matters and as an engineer, you can have a lasting effect on your community and the larger world.
More than 40 industry leaders serve on the TSC Institute's Board. Following on our successful Transportation Talks webinar series, we feature brief thoughts from a member each month.