I don't know about you, but I'm having a hard time seeing the short-term value of this pending legislation. As I sit down to write this column, the House and Senate appear to have finally come to terms on a $789 billion dollar economic recovery plan they feel will kick-start the U.S. economy and get us back on the path to prosperity. The two groups will most likely have voted on the package by Valentine's Day, after this issue goes to press. While many people are wondering whether or not the plan will fulfill its mission, I think the more important question to ask is, “When, if ever, will we feel its effects?”

Even if the Economic Recovery Act of 2009 does get approved by the end of February, many industry groups and construction economists don't think it will have an effect on the overall economy until later this year or possibly early 2010. Some feel the impact on areas like residential and commercial construction — not to mention the industrial manufacturing arena — will be minimal. For those of you who perform electrical design, construction, and maintenance work in these market sectors, this means you could be in for a long, tough year. During difficult times like these, sometimes it's hard to stay positive. However, I think it's the perfect time to ask yourself, “What new opportunities should I focus on now that will best prepare me for future growth?”

You can start by looking at some of the provisions of this Economic Recovery Act. Here's a bulleted list of some key spending items currently in the plan, as recently reported by the Associated Press:

  • $8.4 billion for mass transit and $8 billion for high-speed railways

  • $6.4 billion for water projects

  • $10 billion for health research and construction of National Institutes of Health facilities

  • $50 billion for energy programs, focused mainly on efficiency/renewable energy

  • $11 billion on a “smart electricity grid”

  • $13.9 billion to subsidize loans for renewable energy projects

  • $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient

  • $47 billion in state fiscal relief, with flexibility to use the funds for school modernization and repair

In looking over this list, it's apparent that automation, efficiency, and renewable energy technologies are areas you should start paying close attention to. Energy management, demand response, building automation, and smart metering systems will need to work in concert to improve system performance. High-efficiency lighting equipment, motors, and appliances will continue to drive down energy consumption. And renewable energy technologies can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and spur technology growth here at home. As noted above, these are all areas that will see some level of investment with the passage of this Act.

Although there's no question times are tough for almost everyone in our field, this just might be the right time to invest in the future, by training yourself and your employees on technologies that could carry your firm forward and keep it competitive. Although it's human nature to tighten the purse strings during a financial crisis, sometimes seeing the big picture means spending money now to make money later. To see why slashing your training budget during an economic downturn may not be the best decision — and how some firms are resisting the urge to cut and ramping up training efforts instead — turn to this month's cover story, “Balancing Your Training Budget,” on page 18.