Civil Contractors Remain Optimistic Despite Widespread Pandemic Impacts

Contractors are still seeing high levels of backlog and remain relatively optimistic about the state of the civil construction market.

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While the vast majority of civil contractors (73%) are experiencing delays with their projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic, contactors are still seeing high levels of backlog and remain relatively optimistic about the state of the civil construction market, according to new data from Dodge Data & Analytics. The second volume of The Civil Quarterly (TCQ) also found delays were reported on approximately one-fifth of current projects with little change expected among these contractors over the next six months.

As expected, an overwhelming majority of the contractors surveyed (92%) reported that their business has experienced at least some impacts from COVID-19,  but these effects were not uniform. The most frequent impacts identified were increased worker health and safety concerns (44%) and fewer projects starting construction (42%). Notably, while most of the contractors surveyed (76%) have changed work procedures to increase social distancing, and half (50%) have encouraged their office staff to work remotely, only 10% have had to furlough or lay off employees or adjust their salaries in response to the pandemic.

The Civil Quarterly is the result of a partnership with Founding partner Infotech, Platinum partner Hexagon and Gold partners Command Alkon and Digital Construction Works, and is based on original research collected quarterly from civil contractors and engineers. The research provides a snapshot of the current business health of contractors operating in this dynamic environment and explores trends in the industry impacting contractors. This quarter, the study took a deeper look at the impacts of COVID-19 and explored emerging strategies to address the need for social distancing.

The second volume of TCQ also found contractors are still quite optimistic about the state of their industry and their businesses, even though there are some declines from the positive findings in the inaugural report in April. Over half of contractors (52%) surveyed report a high/very high level of confidence in new business over the next 12 months, a slight decline from 57% last quarter. Conversely, only a quarter (24%) of those surveyed report a low level of confidence.

This optimism isn’t unfounded. Of those surveyed, the ratio of their average current level of backlog to their average ideal level is 85, which demonstrates that most contractors have a healthy level of backlog. This is despite more contractors (47%) reporting decreased backlogs this quarter than last quarter (35%).

However, contractors do report a growing concern about the cost of construction materials. Nearly half (43%) have had their businesses impacted by fluctuations in the cost of construction materials in the last six months, and more than half (54%) are concerned about cost increases for materials over the next six months. It is unclear whether these concerns relate to supply chain impacts from COVID-19, the recent tariffs on some of these materials or other factors, although it is notable that the highest percentage of contractors (61%) report being concerned about steel prices.

Report: Surprising Issues Impacting Heavy Construction During COVID-19

Taken together, these findings reveal an industry that, despite headwinds, is managing the challenges and generally has a positive outlook on the state of business now and in the near future.

The study also explored the many technology strategies that have received new attention in the industry to reduce negative impacts and support the needs for social distancing and increased remote office work in business procedures. Top cited technologies include Ruggedized Tablets, Machine Control, Drones and E-Ticketing.

When looking at e-Bidding, which can impact productivity and profitability, the study revealed that its appeal extends beyond the pandemic, as a vast majority of the industry is either constantly (63%) or frequently (24%) pursuing bidding opportunities. Currently, about two-thirds (67%) of the industry uses a paid bidding service, and only about half (51%) use it to conduct online bid submissions or find out about bid results.

Subscription to a bid aggregation tool is more common (80%), but these tools are far more commonly used to find projects to bid and obtain plans and specs than to submit bids. This is despite the fact that over 70% of those subscribing to a bid aggregation service find that it makes the process for submitting bids easier, faster and more reliable. Currently, about two-thirds (68%) also recognize that their bid aggregation tools help increase safety due to the ability to maintain social distancing.

Dodge Data & Analytics’ TCQ survey was distributed within the month of August 2020 and collected data from 147 contractors and 36 civil engineers who work on heavy civil infrastructure projects. The first iteration of The Civil Quarterly was launched in April 2020 and will continue to be shared as a complimentary report to the industry on a quarterly basis. Future editions of The Civil Quarterly will track a variety of business health metrics and address a wide range of additional related topics to provide a comprehensive view of this complex and ever-changing segment of the construction economy.

The report can be downloaded for free at: