Copyright Melissa Kelsey
Ecm Top40 2022 Promo

What Pandemic? EC&M’s 2022 Top 40 Electrical Design Firms Special Report

June 16, 2022
This year’s Top 40 electrical design firms report big revenue gains, strong hiring interest, and solid progress on a return to normal while still in recovery mode.

Patience and persistence were rewarded in much of the business world in 2021. As the economy began to rebound from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic felt so acutely in 2020, survivors began picking up the pieces. Searching for a return to normal, commerce got back on track in 2021, picking up smartly mid-year as signs of a pandemic “all clear” began to slowly emerge, albeit in the encroaching shadow of surging inflation and other worrisome economic signals.

In a key sector that serves as an important barometer of economic health, overall construction activity strained to pick up in 2021 as stalled projects resumed, and growing optimism for the pandemic’s eventual end sent developers cautiously back to the drawing board. Shovel-ready work was frustrated, however, by a worsening construction worker shortage and severe supply chain disruptions — byproducts of both the pandemic and a fresh concern: rising inflation. The prospective gap between robust demand for construction services and the compromised supply of labor and materials was further widened with passage of the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that promises to heap even more on the construction industry’s plate in 2022 and beyond.
Signs that building could be poised for a liftoff (though perhaps contradicted by massing economic headwinds) may be evident in the demand for construction project design services. And in one key subset of that business — electrical design — it appears 2021 was a mildly surprising banner year.
Companies comprising EC&M’s 2022 Top 40 Electrical Design Firms (ranked by annual revenue reported from the previous year’s business on its annual survey completed this spring) logged combined 2021 electrical design-specific revenues of $3.167 billion (see Rankings Table). Adjusting significantly for the inclusion of a leading company that did not participate in the survey last year, revenues for this year’s Top 40 still topped last year’s total of $2.301 billion by 13%.

Whether that unprecedented jump is skewed by other revenue-reporting anomalies or not, design firms clearly had a strong year on the revenue side, booking sales from earlier projects and drawing income from new work. More telling, characterizations of the year and specifics on performance and business condition metrics (revealed in responses to questions on the EC&M Top 40 Electrical Design Firms survey) suggest firms are largely recovering, and, despite cautionary signs, taking a growth-oriented stance.

Bouncing back

The business climate in 2021 (Fig. 1) was judged strong by 57% of respondents, up from the 30% of last year’s Top 40 that said 2020’s conditions were strong. Only 3% judged last year as weak, compared with 16% who had said 2020 was weak. Half of all respondents also said that as of spring 2022, “business as usual” had returned for their companies (Fig. 2); only 11% of those surveyed in spring 2021 indicated things were back to normal. On another gauge of moving beyond the pandemic, there was a seven percentage-point decline in the small number of firms — just four — saying pandemic-induced contract renegotiations were requested by clients (Fig. 3).

Helping feed that change in assessment were the raw numbers. Forty-three percent said they exceeded electrical design revenue expectations in 2021 (Fig. 4), while only 8% did not. That’s a big turnaround from last year, when just 35% said revenues came in as expected in 2020, and a near equal percentage said revenues fell short. Of 34 firms making a repeat appearance, 26 reported revenue gains over 2020. Another key metric, backlog accumulation, also reversed. Eighty-six percent said it increased (Fig. 5), up from 51% the year before. None said it decreased; 41% had said backlog dipped in 2020.

At Burns & McDonnell (No. 1), Kansas City, Mo., revenue growth surged to 15%, double the 2020 rate, as customers began to see glimmers of a return to normalcy.

“Our growth has usually been in the high single digits year to year, so this higher rate was partly a reflection of slower growth we saw in 2020,” says John Olander, chief operating officer. “After a lot of projects were cancelled in 2020, clients were ready to get back on track.”

After its revenues slid 15% in 2020, Jaros, Baum & Bolles (No. 22), New York, saw business pick back up in the latter half of the year. JB&B bolstered its backlog by some 30% and saw revenue climb 13% on the year, says Mark Torre, managing partner.

Water project specialist Carollo Engineers, Inc. (No. 9), Phoenix, staged a big turnaround from 2020, when its electrical/instrumentation/control revenue fell 4%. It rebounded last year, ending 31% higher, as mothballed projects restarted, and demand for getting critical new projects out of the gate surged.

“Many of our clients had pulled bonds on projects, and master plans/dollars were set and ready to go,” says Ron Burdick, instrumentation engineer. “It was definitely a strong year for us.”

An infrastructure tilt

Demand for such critical infrastructure work, broadly defined, buoyed the fortunes of many design firms in 2021. Conversely, with the pandemic having disrupted social patterns, demand for projects loosely categorized as those oriented to bringing people together has been slow to rebound — and could potentially be impaired long term. Consequently, designers’ future performance may hinge on their level of expertise and experience in “hot” markets, coupled with their ability to be nimble.

Those wanting to catch a wave might be turning their attention to markets oriented to addressing emerging and evolving essential community needs. Markets survey participants cited as the “hottest” in 2021 (Table 1) all have public or quasi-public features: health care; education; power (utilities/transmission and distribution); renewable energy; government; and data centers. Markets perceived as the “coolest” last year (Table 2) had a private sector tilt: hospitality; retail; private office; food and beverage; and automotive, a list that may bear the lingering fingerprints of the pandemic and growing concerns about a recession. Both rankings closely mirror those of the 2021 survey, although education/institution moved from the coolest to the hottest list, and data centers cracked the hottest list.

At Syska Hennessy Group (No. 17), New York, big infrastructure-oriented projects continued to generate more income, and only the tip of the demand iceberg has been seen, predicts Cyrus Izzo, co-president/chief executive officer.

“We do a lot of mission-critical work, data centers, remote medicine, remote learning; the pandemic helped push demand for these as new ways of getting things done were needed,” he says. “The aviation sector is booming, too, with our redevelopment projects at O’Hare in Chicago, San Diego, and JFK in New York. We’re seeing a perfect storm of demand building over time for infrastructure-related work.”

The work profile of Harley, Ellis, Devereaux (No. 30), Southfield, Mich., continued to shift in 2021. HED Associate Principal/Engineering Practice Lead Kenneth Golovko says private office projects receded as remote work took hold, and building space was repurposed. But there was an upswing in health-care-related work and laboratory spaces, which can have intense and specialized electrical requirements. There’s also been a steady uptick, he says, in demand for mission-critical project design work, notably data centers.

“We’ll see some infrastructure improvement impact at the individual building level, where there will be a need to harden facilities to deal with grid issues,” says Golovko. “Solar and wind don’t make sense at that sub-level of infrastructure, but there may be more need for fuel cells and energy storage.”

The Engineering Enterprise (No. 39), Alameda, Calif., saw broad-based demand for its electrical-exclusive design services last year, says Principal Scott Wheeler.

“There’s a lot of higher education and K-12 work, which we don’t see slowing down,” Wheeler noted. “We had a steady amount of work based on being very diverse in many markets, except retail and hospitality. One market that has cooled down is transportation, but it’s one that might come back pretty rapidly at some point.”

An EV boon?

Electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure is another sector that could be big beneficiaries of coming boosts in core infrastructure spending green-lighted by Congress. One emerging sliver of anticipated transportation spending that excites electrical designers is battery charging infrastructure, which will be needed on a grand public and private scale, along with supportive transmission and distribution system upgrades, as electric vehicle production ramps up. Second only to roads and bridges, EV charging infrastructure got the most survey mentions (Fig. 6) as the likeliest beneficiary of federal infrastructure spending in 2022. Further down the list were electric grid updates and renewable power.
Still, most companies surveyed expect limited direct impact initially from federal infrastructure spending. The typical firm foresees only a “minor” or “moderate” positive impact on its business in 2022 (Fig. 7), although one-fifth see a “significant” impact. Drilling down, the survey (Fig. 8) finds just 6% of firms are anticipating a direct revenue boost of more than 20% this year; more than half expect 5% or less.
Since infrastructure spending is likely to play out over many years, design firms are factoring that into their long-range planning. Burns & McDonnell, a T&D market specialist, expects an eventual design boost from the need for grid refinements that more EVs and greater resilience will demand, Olander says. Add in many utilities adding renewable assets to be halfway to net-zero energy by 2030, and infrastructure looks to be a growing and consistent source of income.
“Utilities are moving at different paces, but many are moving to be carbon neutral by 2050,” he says. “And since this looks like a year where every major car manufacturer is introducing EVs, moving that many vehicles to the grid will require new generation and delivery methods.”

Matt Goss, senior vice president and MEP/energy practice leader at CDM Smith, Inc. (No. 27), Boston, sees the company being well-positioned for an infrastructure spending windfall because of its strong bonds with government contracting.

“We see a bit of impact this year from infrastructure spending plans, but the fastest for us will come from transportation-related work,” he says. “Governments at all levels are starting to get a handle on building out EV charging infrastructure. When all of this comes through is still to be determined, but the types of projects we’re usually involved in take time. They’re complex, large, and fun to be part of.”

Optimism for 2022

A gearing up of committed infrastructure spending that may be somewhat insulated from worrisome economic headwinds could provide a good backstop for many design firms’ revenues this year. That, along with some optimism that recession fears are overblown, leads many Top 40 firms to the view that their bookings will be robust in 2022. Twenty-nine firms expect revenue increases of at least 6% this year (Fig. 9), double the number that predicted that much of an increase in 2021. Similarly, more firms see their backlog increasing (Fig. 10) this year (94%), and fewer see it falling (6%). Percentages last year were 83% and 17%, respectively.
A backdrop of increasingly costly single-family housing, low unemployment, and population shifts could align well for Power Design, Inc. (No. 33), St. Petersburg, Fla., a multi-family construction project specialist. The MEP design-build specialist sees electrical design revenues increasing at least 10% this year as the pace of projects tracks a population influx into the coastal markets it prioritizes.

 “Developers are very bullish on these areas people are flocking to, and they’re taking advantage of an interest rate environment as low as it’s ever been,” says CEO Frank Musolino. “As we grow in our design-build coordination expertise, we’re getting into more mixed-use residential-office projects. People still need beds, so there’s plenty to keep us busy.”

JB&B has had a strong start to a year expected to deliver revenue gains of 10% to 14%, and the challenge in Torre’s view is being selective among opportunities to ensure quality work and having enough staff to execute.

 “We’re in the early stages of many, many projects, but things could slow down,” he says. “My gut says that a recession will take longer to hit the economy, so, at this point, we’re dealing with what’s in front of us and trying to ramp up.”

One of the wild cards cited by design firms that could affect this year’s revenues and backlog growth is project material costs and availability, disruptions partially caused by the pandemic and cited by half of firms as a particularly impactful short-term legacy of the pandemic (Fig. 11). Some say continued uncertainty about the supply chain and prices makes it harder to plan not knowing whether projects can stay within budget as designed. That could cause some projects to go into a holding pattern until there’s greater visibility, delaying revenue.

“Times are being pushed way out on some equipment, and that will cause some delays,” CDM Smith’s Goss says. “There have been four rounds of price increases on some materials, and utility-grade transformers have a 12-month wait. Some clients have started to pre-purchase what they can get and then design around what they can secure.”

Labor concerns re-emerge

Design firms experienced supply chain problems of a different, though not unfamiliar, sort in 2021. After a brief hiatus when the depths of the pandemic slowed business, labor supply challenges reasserted themselves as companies got back to work and resumed the perpetual hunt for talent to handle future needs. Long identified in past surveys as a primary focus and business challenge, hiring picked up briskly and is evidently back as a top concern.

After net hiring appeared to slow in 2020, with only 15 firms of 35 reporting adding employees, it accelerated in 2021 as 31 firms on this year’s roster reported adding staff (Fig. 12). On another indicator — a perception that needed labor is in short supply — 92% agreed, up from 70% last year (Fig. 13). And as a factor impeding the growth of their business, “difficulty finding and retaining quality employees” got by far the most mentions (Fig. 14). Half the companies agreed, more than triple the number saying that was the case in 2020, when the pandemic arose as the major growth obstacle. With business seeming to get back on track and the future not looking as uncertain as it did in 2020, no firms said they were laying off staff in 2022 (Fig. 15). Instead, all respondents indicated they were adding employees this year.

Facing a full plate of work, Carollo is stressing more about its ability to adequately staff up. Even after keeping its workforce intact through the pandemic and hiring last year, Burdick says the company needs more talent, particularly seasoned staffers who can step into key roles immediately. They’re in short supply, however, which means it’s taking longer and getting more expensive to hire.

“We’re looking for those five- to 10-year-experience folks,” Burdick says. “I need people who can sit in front of clients from day one. For every two I hire out of college, I need that many at mid-level to help train and grow them. But we also need to crank out the project designs.”

Indeed, the survey offers some evidence that experience continues to be a hot commodity in the design world. As in last year’s survey, “project engineer” was deemed the most difficult position to fill in 2021 (Fig. 16), getting even more mentions than last year. “Supervising engineer” was ranked second, also receiving two more mentions.

“Design engineer is our toughest slot to fill right now, but we also need that middle management,” says Power Design’s Musolino. “That’s an important position that takes five to 10 years to grow into, someone who can interface with customers and design teams.”
The Engineering Enterprise is balancing its desire to take on more work with the need to avoid having to wade too deep into the challenging labor market. Wheeler says the firm could use three full-time designers to handle more demand and relieve some of the stress on its staff, but he knows electrical engineers are a hot commodity.

 “We’re in the mode of being more careful about what we say yes to, so we can make sure we don’t hit burnout with our people,” he says. “It’s difficult to find people, so our tactic is to focus on hiring right out of college.”

At HED, more talent is needed to safely hit revenue projections, but recruiting continues to be a challenge, says Golovko. Engineering schools are not cranking out enough students who have the training or interest in the types of work the company does, so staffing up on the electrical side of the firm’s business is his biggest headache.

“Electrical is the hardest to fill,” he says. “A lot more are attracted to the computer side of electrical engineering as opposed to the power side, so we need to commit to teaching on the job.”

Mentoring and job shadowing are two elements of putting young trainees under the wing of experienced designers, but formal training in key electrical design element is important — and not only for raw recruits. Training programs (provided in-house or by third parties) have become especially vital as electrical has grown and expanded as a design component of so many jobs. Keeping designers fully up-to-date and capable is key to productivity, the ability to handle a menu of diverse and complex projects and industry reputation.

As in past surveys, firms identified four primary areas of concern when it comes to the need for training support (Fig. 17): power systems analysis; the National Electrical Code; electrical design software; and building management/automation systems, an understandable collection given the higher profile of transmission and distribution projects; code changes related to renewable energy; the growing importance of digital design tools; and the increasing complexity of smart, connected buildings.
Golovko says HED has ramped up short-circuit analysis training (as OSHA prioritizes electrical safety) and delved heavily early in the pandemic into data center design training with a 10-week course designed to expand its skill-set bench in a developing market.

“Continuous improvement is the focus of all of our training,” he says. “We want to embrace it at the same time we focus on serving our clients.”

Training time and quality, however, might have been set back at some firms during the pandemic. With many firms having gone to remote work, and many still sticking with it, the in-person element of learning concrete subject matter and absorbing information through casual communication and group dynamics was sacrificed.

Hybrid work takes hold

But when it comes to engineering projects, there’s reason to believe that remote work might not be a hindrance. In fact, it might even be proving beneficial. Even as more firms say more employees are back working in the office (Fig. 18), many staffers are presumably now working hybrid (in-office/remote) arrangements that appear to be working because not a single firm said remote work won’t be more entrenched at their shops after the pandemic ends (Fig. 19). Having apparently gotten either comfortable with or simply resigned to remote work now, firms rated “more virtual meetings” and “more employees working from home part- or full-time” by far the most consequential long-term byproducts of the pandemic for their operations (Fig. 20).
However, the advent of more remote work is a mixed bag, most executives say. Izzo says Syska Hennessy has adapted to more hybrid arrangements but worries it could be the difference between “surviving and thriving,” since face-to-face is still important in client relationships and staff development. Wheeler worries about “maintaining mentoring and culture” with remote work, so The Engineering Enterprise has whittled it down to about 20% and a minimum three office days weekly per employee. Burdick, whose firm is about 60% remote, says hybrid is likely here to stay, but Carollo management has concerns about its effect on work and staff development: “Managers are highly technical people, but now they have the added challenge of getting people engaged virtually,” he says.
A silver lining in the continued acceptance and refinement of technology-enabled remote work arrangements could be recruitment. Some executives say it expands the geographic field for securing talent since it can take the often problematic relocation issue off the table. In a tight labor market, that can be a game changer.

“We can use this to our advantage,” says Golovko. “If you’re the right person for us, you can remain where you are.”

Indeed, technology in its many forms is responsible for helping design firms navigate the pandemic and continues to hold the promise of improving all aspects of the project design process. One corner of futuristic computer-aided-design that continues to engender excitement and debate in the field is augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Tools that could take project visualization, virtual model manipulation, coordination, and collaboration to new levels, AR and VR appear to remain stuck on long, up and down an uncertain road of evaluation and assessment in the electrical design field.

AR/VR adoption stalls

This year, nearly half of survey respondents said they were already using both AR and VR (Fig. 21 and Fig. 22). But only 28% of last year’s top companies reported using AR, while 46% said they were using VR. The year before, 44% reported using AR, while 58% were using VR. There is some consistency, however, in how they’re being utilized. Continuing a trend, firms now using AR and VR say “collaboration with clients” is the primary application (Fig. 23 and Fig. 24). As for how they’re used in electrical applications, verbatim responses included: “owner review of concept design,” “virtual building walk-throughs,” “3D modeling efforts,” “equipment layouts, public outreach presentations, utility coordination,” and “multi-discipline model coordination.”

While slow to take hold, AR, VR, and similar technologies are likely to become indispensable to electrical design in a future where, as the pandemic has demonstrated, the human factor in its full abundance may not always be a given. Ultimately, both technology and human knowledge/talent will likely have to combine in new ways to meet project electrical engineering and design needs that are only becoming more in-demand and complex by the year. Through the pandemic leading electrical design firms demonstrated their ability to utilize a full toolbox of skills, knowledge, and experience — assets sure to set them up well to face any eventuality with confidence.

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lees Summit, Mo. He can be reached at [email protected]. 

About the Author

Tom Zind | Freelance Writer

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. He can be reached at [email protected].

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