COVID-19 Q&A Update with IECA President Adam Dibble

Nov. 4, 2020

IECA President Adam Dibble provides an update on how COVID-19 is continuing to impact the erosion control industry

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact many facets of life, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders to get an update on how COVID-19 is impacting the industry. For more Q&As and to see the results of the Follow-Up: SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report

Katie Johns: How would you say that things have changed in regards to COVID since our last report

Adam Dibble: I think we know more about how to prevent and kind of manage this. I think in May (the time of the last SWS report) there were still so many uncertainties. Now certainly there still are a lot of questions and without getting into the political side of it or what's right and wrong, I think it's pretty safe to say that the CDC has put out some standards that they've tried to implement to keep people safe. I think to the best of most people's abilities, they’ve kind of understood that and figured out some ways to be in compliance and keep their customers and their colleagues safe. I would say some of the things that have changed, in May, that was probably the longest time I've ever gone without traveling ever for work. I think I was home for three months at that point. That's the longest ever for my professional career. Travel is starting to happen again. I personally have traveled maybe 15 of the last 22 or so days. So I've been out in quite a few states, and I feel safer traveling. I think the protocols and procedures have caught up with what you're facing, and airlines figured out a way to try to keep customers safe in implementing new standards.I see that from a  travel standpoint. I think there's an urgency from state projects and federally funded projects to get the work done. I think they were so scared of being at some type of liability or accountability to people working on their projects, that they actually shut them down, and I think now that there are ways they're finding to be able to get their work done in a safe way for the workers but also to advance these key infrastructures. That's the whole reason why they're probably doing the projects. I think as a society, we were wanting to adapt, and I think continuing to implement new strategies to use technology in different ways and certainly with all of the conferences, I think in February, I don't know if I had attended any digital conference yet to that point, but I think I've been to eight or nine of them now. I think that's a huge change, is being able to deliver the education and in a unique way on demand when you want it and stuff like that and still trying to make it as good as a user experience as possible.

Johns: In the original survey, the majority of the responders said that they had anticipated a sizable impact to their business. In our latest one, which closed in September, the majority of responders shifted their answer to say a minor impact. So do you agree that the impact people were predicting is smaller than anticipated? And if so, why do you think that that is?

Dibble: I think I've seen both. I think I saw people saying, “Oh, this is not going to have much impact to my business at all because I'm critical, and we're in infrastructure and construction is deemed a necessity.” And so I don't think you saw much change with them, but I think what you may have seen in some ancillary markets where they might not have been deemed critical are now back into full business and reaping some of the benefits of having the opportunity, maybe the bandwidth and the people resources to execute projects. I don't know if it's really strong one way or the other. I think it's kind of finding an equilibrium. I don't know if any one sector I could say that really adapted better than others. I think you find some industry leaders that have adapted earlier or found a right fit for them and were able to be safe and continue to work. And I think you have maybe some late adapters that didn't want to take the risk and are following some of the best management practices now.

Johns: More people than in our previous survey are seeing their projects be postponed. How do you think that will change going forward? Do you think people are going to try to wrap up their projects in 2020 or just push a lot until 2021?

Dibble: That's interesting. I would say my experience is that a lot of people are getting them wrapped up. I think maybe my point of view is a little bit different because we're typically kind of upstream if you will, so we're in the preventative part. What you're seeing is a very large fire season happening right now. It was an earlier season, more acres, and I think that there's just going to be an increase of work from natural disaster type things. You can't postpone where you have human interface and potential for loss of life because of flooding or because of mudslides and things of that nature. I think there's some things that you just can't put off, but I don't necessarily feel that there's been a prioritization, “Oh, we're just going to push this off till next year.” What I'm seeing is people trying to get all of their work down this year. 

Now there may be very large infrastructure projects that need very critical oversight or onsite management that the human resources or capital are not available to do that, and I could see where they'd be getting pushed. I think there's an agency sentiment that would say this budget year expires December 31st, and we need to spend the money that's in our budget or we'll get less next year. If it was a millage, for example, they've got to execute those that spend, and so I think you'll still see, again, my feeling is there's a lot of pent-up work that's going to get done over the next couple months that maybe even a month ago, they might've thought that there was no way they're going to get to it, but they're trying to push to get it done. That's created a bit of a backlog, and a lot of things from the service providers and the installers, the onsite inspectors and stuff, but also just state agencies- if you have fewer employees or even if you had to furlough some employees, now getting them back to speed, you just have a lot of work that's that hadn't been done that's now waiting to get done.

Johns: Do you think that some of these new work policies that people have implemented, whether it's working remotely or whatnot, will stick around when someday, hopefully, COVID-19 is a thing of the past?

Dibble: I hope so. I think just in general, as a society, there are learnings I've taken from here. I think the ability to work remotely, the opportunity to leverage things in a different way using technology, but I think one of the other key takeaways is maybe putting a value on the time that you do have face-to-face interactions becomes so much more important, right? So maybe they're not as frequent as in the past, but if you happen to have a small group meeting or something, I think just the value of that becomes so much more important now because they're few and far between, at least in my experience right now.

I think it will have a lasting effect. Will everyone always have digital meetings going forward? Right now I'm not seeing anything that's not digitally planned (through) February at least of next year in all of the meetings that I attend and conferences. But I don't think that forever, they'll never be face-to-face meetings again. I think there's just some things we'll learn along the way, but currently, I think there are some great learnings and optimizations, and I read recently that re-leasing commercial properties has decreased something like 60% in the last three months. I think that's just a key indicator for me that’s saying, I think, large corporations that have multiple workspaces and offices may say, “Hey, we can consolidate... technology now exists that our people can work remotely as effectively, or maybe more effectively, than we ever thought they could, in which case we can optimize cost savings,” and things of that nature, exposure, risk, and things by not making people commute to an office where there's a hundred people in the same room, for example. I think there are some great takeaways there, but again, I think it's still kind of early to determine what really will stick around and what won't.

Johns: Is there anything else you want to add about the industry or COVID or anything in general?

Dibble: As IECA president, I think I'm really proud of our industry’s ability to navigate these troubling times and try to figure out ways to implement best management practices quickly. And in a way that keeps our industry people safe as well as trying to respond to the demand in the marketplace to provide erosion and sediment control on projects and keep our waters nice and safe and clean for everyone's future. I would share that message to IECA members but really anyone in our industry that I appreciate everyone trying to do their part in keeping the industry strong and responding to the demands of the market.

About the Author

Katie Johns

Katie Johns, editor-in-chief of Storm Water Solutions and Water Quality Products, graduated from the University of Missouri in 2016 with a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. Johns joined the Storm Water Solutions team in September 2019. Johns also helps plan the annual StormCon conference and co-hosts the Talking Under Water podcast. Prior to entering the B2B industry, she worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in Sarasota, Florida, and a magazine assistant editor in the Chicago suburbs. She can be reached at [email protected].