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A President's Message from SEAOC President Rafael Sabelli

Monday, July 27, 2020  

By Rafael Sabelli, SE, SEAOC President 2020

Every month I have the privilege to address the SEAOC membership through this column, providing my thoughts on issues that I believe are important, encouraging my fellow engineers to consider these issues thoughtfully. Looking back over this (almost) one-year’s worth of columns, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that several of these have related fairly directly to crises, ranging from fires and blackouts, to operating an engineering practice during a pandemic, to nation-wide protests. I have little fear that 2020 will fail to provide enough material for me to finish my year, nor that my successor will have little to comment on.

In 2009 I began my year as President of SEAONC. The financial crisis hit our industry fairly hard, and our members were generally nervous. Hiring of new graduates was anemic. Many of us have noticed a missing segment of engineers that graduated during that time, an effect that has lingered for several years. 

In early 2010 I got a fairly big laugh at a dinner meeting: inviting for entries to our Excellence in Engineering Awards competition I announced the new category of “Best Canceled Project.” (In fact, I may have used that joke several times; I am probably remembering the cumulative laughs received.) 

That bit of gallows humor may be trotted out again as we face the economic effects of a prolonged pandemic. Similar to COVID-19’s effect on the human body, some of the economic damage is due to the direct attack and some is due to the reaction to that attack. As some physical activities are restricted to reduce spread of the disease, certain economic activities become difficult or impossible. This necessary defensive reaction can harm the body it is intended to protect.

The way out is clearly to defeat the disease and emerge from the crisis by collective action. (The deus ex machina of a vaccine will be welcome, but other countries have managed with the tools at hand.) As we gradually emerge on the other side of the crisis, we will have cause to wonder if we have saved everything we could have, or if we have lost some irretrievable items. Think of everything you are prepared to set aside for six weeks, six months, a year. Will it be there when you are ready? (I can forgo BART for several months, but I certainly want it operating when it’s finally safe for me to work in the office. The same goes for my doctor, dentist, dry cleaner, etc.)

We want to emerge from this crisis ready to build great structures. We want a talented and thriving workforce that can meet challenges with innovation and creativity. We should be prepared, as a society, to value potential productivity in this period so that we have productivity potential in the future. What can we do for this year’s graduates? How can we ensure that there will be graduates ready to be hired when we need them?