By Derek Jones
The global COVID-19 outbreak has had a devastating effect on firms operating within most sectors, with shelter-in-place orders, remote working guidelines, and forced closures resulting in economic hardship not only for consumers but also for businesses and entire industries. The effect on MEP businesses, however, has been notably complex. Those operating within the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing sectors have been amongst the hardest hit, yet are also positioned in a prime place for rapid recovery.
A Promising Future
Fortunately for MEP businesses, the Federal Government amended initial COVID-19 guidance to specifically include MEPs within the official list of “essential critical infrastructure workforce,“ which means that many MEP contractors have been able to remain largely operational during the pandemic.
These continued operations have sparked good news for the future of MEPS, with Technavio’s August 2020 report predicting that the North American MEP services market will grow by $37.39 bil. by 2024.
However, this level of growth is only expected to materialize if MEP businesses fully identify and address the potential problems that the industry may face in the “new normal.“ It is clear that the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing sectors will not be the same in a post-COVID world, and so it is vital that MEP businesses understand the challenges that they may come up against, and have a plan to tackle them.
So just what are the most likely challenges MEP businesses will face after COVID-19?
A Need for Increased Workplace Safety
Safety has always been paramount across the MEP industry, but the need for high level worker protection and security is growing at a rapid rate. This is especially true within the plumbing sector, as The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) notes that a localized COVID-19 outbreak in a Hong Kong apartment block could be traced to the building’s sanitation system.
Health and wellbeing are a bigger priority than ever before, and many MEP businesses are relying heavily upon their HR teams to support the adaptation of workplace processes; implementing remote working where possible and updating mobility policies, for example. HR burden is at an all-time high, but MEPs can tackle this problem by introducing top time tracking software to automate basic HR functions.
While remote working can succeed in some instances, many tasks performed by MEP businesses are conducted on-site. This means that, should an employee show signs of illness, they should be encouraged to remain home and isolate for the mandatory period. This can result in staff shortages, and a need for MEPs to consider expanding the workforce to ensure adequate cover and minimize delays.
However, this introduces yet another challenge. There are concerns across the industry that available talent pools will dry up due to a lack of training opportunities in the post-COVID environment. The IAPMO has already confirmed that it has been forced to reschedule in-person classes. But training in the age of COVID-19 isn’t impossible, and an effective solution is to embrace digital learning platforms.
With more people at home than ever before, some MEP businesses—particularly those that deal with repairs—will be finding themselves handling greater than average call volumes. Consumers will be keen to maintain their environments, and it’s vital that firms have the ability to scale up to meet this demand. However, it is also important to minimize the risk of transmission by maintaining social distancing.
To address this problem, some MEP businesses have already innovated their processes to offer virtual services such as diagnostics using video conferencing tools. MEP contractors can also use this method to talk clients through easy fixes or offer advice. Not only does this virtual approach improve safety, but it also cuts down on travel time, freeing up resources to take on more jobs and meet growing demand.
While some MEPs are experiencing higher-than-usual demand, others are seeing a notable drop in call volume. Although the latest Kitchen & Bath Market Index reveals an uptick, it can’t be denied that COVID-19, and the financial uncertainties that have come with it, have changed spending habits. Repairs and maintenance are up, but new works and replacement of old but operational equipment are down.
Once again, the solution is innovation. MEP businesses should now be looking at new ways to drive custom, such as introducing modern technologies which help clients to visualize project results more clearly. 3D BIM software is beginning to make waves across the MEP industry, and reports show that North America is 'dominant in the global mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) software market’.
Supply Chain Breakdown
Many MEP businesses source their equipment from international suppliers, with a significant portion of plumbing equipment especially being imported from China. Early on in the pandemic, facility closures across China caused delays in supply, with research from the UK showing that MEP equipment sourced from abroad was taking an additional 8 to 9 weeks to reach the country due to ceased freight routes.
Now that facilities have reopened, lead times aren’t a problem. What is a problem, however, is that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed major vulnerabilities in global trade. Relying on globalization for day-to-day operations is no longer feasible, and many MEPs are beginning to seek out alternatives. One such alternative is bringing the supply chain home, and utilising local suppliers to minimize the risk.
A Silver Lining?
There are no doubts that the pandemic has been devastating. However, there is a possible silver lining for MEP businesses, and that’s the ability of COVID-19 to fast track the industry’s transition to digital, with businesses looking into cloud-based HR solutions and real-time digital communications with clients.
Things are certainly looking positive for the MEP industry, although it is clear that the way businesses handle the short term post-COVID recovery period will be instrumental in shaping the long term future of the sector. Health, safety, and positive balance sheets are key to success during challenging times.
Derek Jones spearheads key initiatives at Deputy, a global workforce management platform for employee scheduling, timesheets and communication. With a focus on Construction, Derek helps business owners and workforce leaders simplify employment law compliance, keep labor cost in line and build award-winning workplaces. Jones has over 16 years of experience in delivering data-driven sales and marketing strategies to SaaS companies like MarketSource and Griswold Home Care.