It’s the best of times and the most challenging of times for many businesses, and Little Rock’s Crist Engineers is no exception. Having had to pivot sharply with the rest of the universe to accommodate the onset of COVID last spring, the 83-year-old firm emerged nimbler and more adept at interacting productively through remote work arrangements.
Which is good news given the current labor market and the company’s groaning workload, 90 percent of which comes from wastewater projects. Attracting and retaining the right employees is a daily challenge of primary importance, said Craig Johnson, vice president, who’s been with the firm for almost a decade.
“We are very busy. We need more help,” he said. “The labor market for good, qualified engineers here is tough. It’s very competitive to get good people and very competitive to keep people.
“I just had lunch with a gentleman today, and it’s amazing what new grads are asking for. It’s flex time and what do you do outside of work and what philanthropic organizations are you engaged with? It’s crazy the work environment our new grads are expecting to be engulfed in, compared to where I was starting out 25 years ago.”
Increasingly, a firm’s aptitude for effective remote work arrangements is top of mind for many would-be employees. To that end, Crist Engineers has risen to the top of the heap when it comes to the new normal of the workplace.
“Initially, to be in accordance with the CDC guidelines, we sent everybody home, and we had to invest quite a bit in hardware for them to be able to operate from home,” Johnson said. “We had people take their PCs home, take their equipment home, and we did a rotation here at the office. We rotated everybody one week in here and one week from home, because we still had a need to meet with the team. You still have to see people and work with our structural engineers, and that seemed to work pretty well.
“That’s been a benefit because our mentality changed regarding some of our employees. We pretty much have permanent employees working remotely now. We have an employee who works in Tulsa; we have people who work in Springdale. They come in about once a month for two to three days at a time, based on project load. We would have never considered that arrangement prior to COVID.”
Crist’s ability to shift thinking has not only paid off in response to recent events, but in recent years, it’s been the hallmark of successful firms in the industry overall.
“From an engineering perspective, clients continue to expect us to bring the best innovation that we can and deliver more for less,” Johnson said. “That’s a very difficult challenge because the need always outweighs the amount of budget that you have. Delivering a project within the timeframe that’s dictated by a regulatory constraint can pin us to a schedule that’s sometimes reasonable and sometimes not. So, it’s how much juice can you get out of the grape, and how can you go about doing that?
“What we do see is clients coming around more to the understanding that it’s renewal that they’re after, rather than modifying or replacing. Completely renew the infrastructure that’s there, because it needs to last for 50 years, and there’s stuff in the ground that’s well over 100 years old that’s never been touched. It probably leaks like a sieve, but nobody knows about it because it’s buried.”
Of course, a company’s ability to innovate relies on several variables beyond project scope, budget and timeline. Particularly now, supply chain issues have altered access to materials such that it’s wreaking havoc with production cycles, delivery dates and pricing, even those specified in contracts.
“We have manufacturers writing letters to our contractors that are just arbitrarily extending their delivery dates because they say they can’t deliver within the confines of the purchase order or the agreement,” Johnson said. “Some are claiming force majeure, saying, ‘We just can’t do it because of COVID.’
“More and more, they get their backs up against the wall and aren’t able to meet production, and right now, contractually, there’s not a good way to address that. There are some efforts with some of our organizations that support us contractually to be able to address those challenges, but we’re in very much of a gray area when these items come up.”
The situation has made it very difficult for firms to increase their overall book of business. Johnson said Crist’s projects are almost exclusively Arkansas jobs or right over the border and will stay that way, given how full the staff’s hands are. But even within the firm’s heritage market footprint, planning for the future is becoming a dicey proposition. This comes at a particularly bad time, given the potential trillions of dollars’ worth of projects looming on the horizon, provided Congress passes an infrastructure bill.
“We can’t get long leads, budgeting steel pipe, PVC,” Johnson said. “Suppliers won’t keep quotes more than a week or two weeks, but in the municipal business, it’s legitimately a 60-day process. Contractors are having difficulty holding for 60 days. Because of that, we’re having to change the way we engineer projects.
“We just led a project with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, revamping the Spring River Fish Hatchery in Mammoth Spring. The contractor comes to the pre-construction conference and says, ‘We think this is a good design; it’s very cost-effective, but we won’t be able to start for another 24 weeks because of this particular material. We need your engineer to redesign it like this, so we can move the project ahead.’ That was a first; I’ve never done that in 25 years, where we made a substantial redesign effort to accommodate material availability.”
Crist Engineering has its roots in the consulting engineering office of Marion Crist, a 1925 Stanford graduate who hung out his shingle in 1938. The firm grew steadily, and in 1955 designated key employees as associates, incorporating that year as Marion L. Crist and Associates. In 1968, Crist retired, and his share in the firm was purchased by the associate engineers. The company changed to Crist Engineers Inc. in 1973, and today maintains a Hot Springs office in addition to its Little Rock headquarters.
Johnson said for all that’s new, both in the firm and in the field, the fundamentals that underpin the company’s sterling reputation are as solid as ever, even if they are expressed in radically different ways.
“Internally and externally, communication is still key, even though it’s a lot of Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” he said. “I have clients that Teams me directly, or they’re setting up Zoom calls, and this becomes the normal mode of communication on a project. There’s good and bad with that. We’re even more accessible than we were before, but you lose a lot of personal transactions with people that we’ve worked with for a long period of time.
“Internally, you have to step up the communication platform for all of your team members, without a doubt. It got to the point, and we did this today, where we’re still using Teams and Zooming in calls, and we’re across the office from one another. We would never have done that before; we would get in a conference room. But it’s easier since we’ve gotten used to it, to be in front of your own machine using your screen share from your office, even though the other person is just down the hall to the right.”