Facilities Engineering for the Military Provides an Oasis in the Recession
In this gloomy recession, when many businesses, including engineering firms, find themselves laying off staff, declaring bankruptcy, or even shutting their doors, it’s refreshing to find an organization booming and hiring more engineers this year. With a multitude of construction projects under its jurisdiction, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southwest presents ample opportunities for individual engineers as well as engineering consultants as subcontractors. John Coon, chief engineer in charge of capital improvement projects, notes, “We’ve had tremendous success recently hiring folks that were either losing hours in the private sector or had completely lost their jobs.”
Private businesses such as engineering and construction firms benefit because NAVFAC Southwest contracts with them to produce construction for the military such as housing, piers, airfields, and hospitals. Coon says, “Frankly, the private sector can do the work more efficiently for the taxpayer’s sake.”
With 3200 employees, NAVFAC Southwest is one of 10 facilities engineering commands in the U.S. Navy. It handles facilities and environmental engineering to support Navy shore facilities along with Marine Corp and other Department of Defense facilities in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. This includes planning, engineering, design, construction, environmental services, and acquisition and disposal of facilities and real estate. The command also provides public works services such as transportation, maintenance, utilities/energy delivery, facilities management, and base operations support.
NAVFAC Southwest falls under the umbrella of NAVFAC, headquartered on the historic Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Rear Admiral Greg Shear, chief of civil engineers, leads NAVFAC's 15,000 Civil Engineer Corps officers, civilians, and contractors. NAVFAC has 12 component commands, including the 10 facilities engineering commands that report to two NAVFAC Commands, NAVFAC Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia and NAVFAC Pacific in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
When I ask recently retired Commanding Officer Steve Wirsching about the opportunities for engineering firms with NAVFAC Southwest, he replies, “They’re building a new 500,000-square-foot, $563 million hospital at Camp Pendleton, and there is a ton of opportunities there.” With the Marine Corps growing larger and recovery act work in play, “we’re on track to award $2.2 billion worth of construction projects this fiscal year and $3.1 billion next year. So we have a huge construction program. We typically do somewhere between $500 million to $750 million in environmental work, mostly cleanup but some compliance work. We do work across the whole spectrum of facilities.” Extensive work also comes at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, one of the largest military medical facilities in the country (editor’s note: see our feature story on the C5 center there).
About 75 percent of NAVFAC Southwest’s new construction work comes through design-build project delivery. “We love it. It’s our preferred method. I think we’re pretty good at it. We’ve been doing it for 10 to 15 years. We think we get a great product,” Wirsching remarks. Coon adds, “It has reduced our change order rate during construction, and we’re completing projects much closer to the original promised date than in the past.” They also have reduced claims between AE firms and contractors because when they did design-bid-build, they went low bid and had adversarial relationships with contractors to ensure they didn’t get shortchanged.
Coon elaborates: “Through the American Recovery Act, there are a number of energy-related projects, predominantly photovoltaic roof-type projects, that we’re in the process of awarding. Likewise, starting this fiscal year, all our new construction is going to incorporate the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, known as LEED. We’re going to submit for Silver Certification on all our projects as a minimum. In the past, we had an objective of bronze certifiable, kind of self-certifying the projects.”
Many engineers have military experience, but many don’t. As an electrical engineer, Coon went to San Diego State University and came to the Naval Air Station for a student intern program, returning after college to work fulltime. He doesn’t have military experience.
On the other hand, Wirsching, a civil engineer, has 26 years as a Navy corps officer and has lived all over the world on various assignments. A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, Captain Wirsching was commissioned in 1983 through the U.S. Naval Academy, earning a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. He later earned a master's in civil engineering from Penn State University. Wirsching is a Seabee Combat Warfare Officer and a licensed professional engineer in Idaho. Captain Keith Hamilton has taken over for Wirsching as commanding officer of NAVFAC Southwest.
While the prospects for work with NAVFAC Southwest appear optimistic, the scenario has its complexities, Coon relates. “We have a number of folks retirement eligible who are hanging on for financial reasons. But we believe that over time, the workforce that can retire three or four years down the road will. In addition, some of the hires we’re making right now, folks in mid career, will stay until the economy turns and then go back to the private sector. Their love is in the private sector. We are in the process of hiring and trying to balance that whole workload so we don’t end up with an overhire situation.”
But as the bottom line, Coon says simply, “We continue to believe the workload is going to sustain itself for a few years.” That provides one source of hope for individual engineers and consulting firms alike as they weather the current economic recession.
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