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An audience with the AEC

Author: Jamie Millar

Insight into Australia's AEC industry and people

The architecture, engineering and construction design (AEC) industries are generally grouped together as a ‘sector’ as the individual practices have similar ultimate outputs – that of complex designs, planning and execution of building and infrastructure projects. From homes, offices, custom buildings and infrastructure projects to electrical/electronic systems, hospitals, bio-medical facilities and so many more, it’s almost impossible to gauge the scope of projects and society this sector touches.

These practices and businesses all require and involve a high degree of expertise, training and technology and are managed and staffed by highly-educated professionals.

So what makes the AEC sector tick as a business-to-business (B2B) audience? How are the industry segments faring in these gloomy times?

Who better to ask than senior media/editorial staff at Australia’s leading engineering and architecture industry magazines.

TRYING TIMES

AEC Trade Magazines

The engineering and architecture industries, for the most part, are not currently running high on confidence.
According to Engineers Media managing editor Dr. Tim Kannegieter the general engineering industry “came off a high around 18 months ago”.

Indicators used to form this opinion are anecdotal – evidence of an oversupply of engineers in some sectors where previously there was a shortage – and economic in current advertising spend being “pretty flat”.

In the architecture industry, Architecture Australia advertising manager Victoria Hawthorne said a key confidence indicator was the Australian Institute of Architecture employment figures.

“In December, unemployment figures were trending upwards, especially in Victoria,” Ms Hawthorne said.

“But the situation has stabilised recently and is even picking up in Sydney.

“The new-start housing figures are also usually an accurate barometer of industry health and were not looking particularly good at the end of 2012 but have also picked up in the last couple of months.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, as you might expect, with the “zeitgeist” pointing towards uplift in late 2013 and a much stronger industry by mid-2014.

Dr Kannegieter said there were sectors where there remained a shortage of engineers – the less popular sectors, such as the rail industry and health (hospitals and biomedical construction).

An aging workforce is in part to blame, with large gaps (around 20 years) between retiring engineers and upcoming replacements.

According to Ms Hawthorne the architecture industry is currently strongest in the commercial sector, although the trend on residential is now more positive. There is a “high degree of suppressed need” in the housing sector, she said.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Architecture Australia’s 2012 readership survey shows the majority of architecture practices are small to medium enterprises (SMEs) – 83 per cent of those surveyed had one to five employees.

Dr Kannegieter considered the number of SMEs in the engineering sector to be “a fairly even spread”.

Both Ms Hawthorne and Dr Kannegieter suggested that architects and engineers naturally moved to management roles quite early; both agreed, however, that a high degree of technical education and expertise didn’t necessarily make for good leadership or business management.

In this light, both publications provide content on business practice and executive decision-making.

In weakened industries, practices must run lean and efficiently to survive; it seems likely that systems and services offering efficiency and improved process will add value.

TECHNOLOGY TODAY

Engineers and architects are naturally tech savvy as each sector uses complex design tools and software for day-to-day work.

Dr Kannegieter said that because engineers designed systems for improved operations, they were generally early adopters of worthwhile technology.

“Engineers are good at analysing real business needs and translating those into real business processes,” he said.

“They will certainly adopt technology as it becomes available, as long as it’s not frivolous.

“As an example, there has not been a wide proliferation of tablets in the workforce as they’re not [yet] considered necessary.”

This is particularly evident in Architecture Australia’s readership survey where a surprising 87 per cent preferred to receive and read the magazine in print format, as opposed to reading a digital version of the magazine on an iPad or other tablet.

Ms Hawthorne said she thought, at root, the architecture industry was an “older generation” with a high degree of traditionalism.

A newer generation, such as trainees coming out of university, is more naturally tech savvy having grown up with technology – possibly the first to do so.

This could represent an opportunity – to be involved in education of good practice management at an early, pre-career, stage; introducing practice management software as a facilitator and support technology as a standard process as part of the business aspects of tertiary architecture, engineering and construction education.

PAGE TURNERS

Architecture Australia and Engineers Australia (civil and general editions) are each the leading titles in their sectors; both official publications of their respective industry institutes.

Dr Kannegieter is faced with the task of telling relevant stories to a massive breadth of interest. It helps that he is an engineer himself.

“It’s important to know the level of language magazines can get away with given the vastness of engineering fields and the distinct changes in language,” he said.

“Any given article might not be that relevant [to other sectors, if too technical] and we’re always trying to pitch at a level that meets the needs of both audiences… a level sufficient for software engineers yet not losing relevance to civil engineers.”

An interesting insight from the engineering audience perspective was the desire for various categories of ‘thought leadership’ in editorial content for Engineers Australia.

HOW TO SUCK EGGS

The challenge in communicating with a highly-educated and technical audience, it seems, is knowing the language and understanding the business needs from the inside.

Without lecturing technical professionals how to run a business, they need to choose relevant tools that make so much sense they can’t go past them… tools that allow them to run a business more efficiently – which, in turn, allows them to focus on what they do best.


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