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Archive for the ‘work’ Category

I’ve been interviewing with a lot of companies lately, and I recently heard a comment on the state of the industry that attracted my attention.  An employer I was talking to mentioned, off-hand, that despite the economic conditions and the number of people looking for jobs, companies are having a surprisingly difficult time finding personnel with middling experience, the solid earners who are not too junior, not too senior. As this was a side point and the speaker was developing a thought, I never did share my observations on the matter, but they have been scratching at the back of my brain since.

The economic meltdown has everyone pinched, and engineering companies have tried different approaches to weather the rough spot.  Some started dropping their fees dramatically — even below sustainability level, what we call in the business “buying work”, so eventually many others had to follow.  Retaining personnel to do the work became a challenge.  I observed four main strategies (not all at companies I worked for):

  1. Squeeze the personnel.  Cut the employee list then get everyone who is left afraid, and extract the maximum “productivity” by directly passing the pressure of under-costing jobs, giving too few hours and the same deadlines so that employees will essentially do work for free.  Ruthless, makes for unhappy employees, but also for a lean and mean proposal style and minimum management headaches — in the short run.
  2. Half-time. Cut hours across the board and distribute the work as evenly as possible. Humane and fair but you may still lose employees and spreading the work is a management challenge. You don’t always have the right personnel to match to work coming in.  As a result, only small and committed companies take this approach.
  3. No parachute.  Give the junior personnel responsibilities well ahead of where they nominally are and let them learn through doing, very fast and under pressure.  If they are talented, they will learn very fast from this accelerated exposure and become extremely productive at low billing rates.  If they screw up, management can fire them and control damage, then move on to the next expendable wizkid.
  4. Retreat to the core.  Keep only the most essential pillars of the company, the people with 30 years of experience who ensure continuity, and give them raw recruits to do the grunt work.  The idea is that the veterans will catch most mistakes and any rework will be relatively cheap at junior personnel’s rates.

In the long run, this tends to give all companies an age pyramid that is pinched in the center, with a wider base and top, a topiary look.  It’s most pronounced in case #4 because it’s integral part of the approach, and least in case #2, because these companies try to retain all their employees.  Cases #1 and #3 tend to have a narrower top than #4, but a wide base and narrow middle too.  But in the long run, even type #2 ends up making it financially non-viable for the middle-range (say 8-15 years of experience) professionals who have families to support — especially women — so that a lot decide to move into other fields with more employment, for example computer/information technology.

Moreover, everyone is thinking in terms of the last three years’ worth of economic morass, but they forget that for several years before that, the economy was already screwed up for any work that was not related to the housing bubble.  In my business, that means pretty much any work except what is related to site development or redevelopment.  So a lot of environmental engineering and science work was already curtailed and I have observed the various coping strategies used early on in those specific types of work.

No, I’m not particularly surprised to see an unfortunate distribution among environmental professionals’ experience range.

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I’m 45 now, I’ve been an engineer for over half my life.  Bit by bit, I have passed into the second half of my career without ever seeing the change coming.  Every once in a while I run into a discussion, in person or online, about the Millenials as the “Me Generation”, about how young people today are all about their entitlement and their toys, and not about what they can do your their country — or, more likely, for their employer.  As some like to sum it up, “Millenials want bags of money or praise.”

The first time it happened, maybe five years ago or so — I guess by then I was considered elderly enough not to be considered one of the young whippersnappers anymore — I was quite shocked.  I was trying to recognize the young people I know, and failed.  I asked myself whether it was because I was so disconnected from them, but it just so happen that a good number of my friends are in their mid-twenties.

Now I’ve gone back to teaching and I look at even younger people in our Engineering Department.  Do these complaints reflect what I’m seeing?

In a word, no.  I think it’s absurd.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between young people in 2011 and those I taught in the late 90s, or my cohorts in the late 80s, let alone my parents’ generation.  Particularly in the way they have learned to learn, the way they work, their expectations of how things work, they obviously have been shaped by a different context.  They have grown up with different technology.

But I find the descriptions that have been attached to their supposed sense of entitlement and air-headedness completely unfair.  Do they have unrealistic expectations?  Of course — it’s part of that stage of life.  And let’s face it, the world they have been raised to expect changes even faster with each passing decade.

Do they need to learn critical thinking, hard work, self-reliance, initiative, resourcefulness?  About as much as 20-year-olds ever do, and maybe less than my students from the late 90s.

Do they have an inflated sense of entitlement?  Ha.  Less so than the Baby Boomers.  In fact, if anything the Millenials’ flaw in the eyes of most employers is that they aren’t quite naive enough about being taken advantage of.  I still wouldn’t call them savvy — that’s something that take more years of experience — but they don’t come in with the expectation that they should sacrifice everything to the altar of The Job.  I say good on them.

No, what I’m seeing is young people who want their choices to have a meaning, who want try many things, who want their efforts to be appreciated, and who are doubtful about how much they can trust what they hear from older generations.  Employers, give them a chance and give them some reasons to love what they do!

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2010 was a difficult year for most people I know, and for me personally.  I was sick, our car was stolen right out of our driveway, I lost a beloved cat to illness,  I had unexpected (and unentertaining) expenses, work has been very slow, etc.  I stopped writing on my blog early in the year, and we might as well count 2010 as a write-off in terms of blogging.  Even on my more personal journal I hardly wrote anything except to share a few links.  So here’s to hoping 2011 is better for all of us, especially all my unemployed or underemployed friends.

A couple of good things did happen, particularly my starting to teach at Humboldt State University’s Environmental Resources Engineering Department again.  I taught a Solid Waste Management class in the fall, and I was lucky to have a very good group; I really loved my students.  The days I was teaching became the days I most looked forward to in the week.  (But I’ll tell you, teaching brings in very little money for the amount of work it requires.)

Still, I enjoy it and it provides for diversity of income.  I was offered two classes for the spring semester, and I lucked out again by being offered two of my favourite topics.  I will be teaching an Environmental Impact Assessment class and a Water Quality and Environmental Health class, both of which I am very familiar with.  It’s going to be a great big load of work, but what great subjects!  I thought I would take the opportunity to blog about some of the issues we cover because I think they are of general interest.

I’m also going to try to vary my approach to lectures.  I’ve been relying a lot on slides, handouts, prepared lecture notes, etc., but I would like to try more discussion and less “bullet points”.  So I’m revising the notes I’ve used before; the material is still fine, but I want to present it more dynamically.  That said, I will still post the occasional slide presentation for discussion.

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This month’s job openings at SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists, Inc.:

  • Consulting Biologist (CEQA Expert) (Eureka)
  • Materials Testing Laboratory Manager (Willits)
  • Mid-level Civil Engineer, California PE (Willits)
  • Senior-level Civil Engineer, California PE (Redding)
  • Temporary Field Botanist/Wildlife Biologist (Eureka)

Good positions, good benefits, fun company to work for, great co-workers, wonderful area to live in.

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This month’s job openings at SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists, Inc.:

  • Consulting Biologist (Eureka)
  • Materials Testing Laboratory Manager (Willits)
  • Mid-level Civil Engineer, California PE (Willits)
  • Senior-level Civil Engineer, California PE (Redding)
  • Temporary Field Botanist (Eureka)

If you or someone you know is interested in applying on one of SHN’s open positions, or wants additional information, please visit www.shn-engr.com or speak with Taylor Marie Baker, HR Manager.

Help us continue to provide quality-driven services to northern California and southern Oregon!

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This month’s job openings at SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists, Inc.:

Willits office:

  • Materials Testing Laboratory Manager
  • Mid-Level Civil Engineer, P.E. (California)

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As in many other technical disciplines, it’s a frequent career path for engineers — almost required — to move from on from pure technical work (design, analysis, number-crunching, etc.) onto project management.

A long time ago as an undergrad in civil engineering, my course concentration was in construction project management.  I learned the crunchy part, the technical part of the work: cost estimates, budgets, schedules, systems analysis, the critical path method, all that good stuff.  But it turns out I didn’t learn, at the time, elements that in modern practice are considered part of a project manager’s job.

It’s hardly surprising; to this day, a majority of technical professionals learn project management on the job, through trial and error — lots of costly errors.  There are a lot of human, non-technical skills and tasks involved, the so-called soft skills: leadership, people management, client contact, networking, proposal preparation, finding new projects, keeping clients happy.

In truth, many of us take years to even start realizing that some of these are indeed part of project management!  For example, we keep hoping for the day the marketing personnel will learn to prepare proposals entirely without our help, without stealing our valuable technical time.

Consultants, you see, live and die by their “billable” (or “chargeable”) time: how many hours in a day do we spend working on something that advances a specific project and therefore can be charged to that client’s account?  How many hours in a day do we manage to get our salary covered by project work rather than to overhead?  Every employee in a consulting firm is acutely conscious of that percentage and every hour she has to spend on finding new work — networking, looking for leads, writing proposals, etc. — is an hour not spent on a chargeable project.

But it turns out it IS part of project management, as is keeping the client happy and informed, nursing bruised egos on a team, riding herd on sub-consultants, or negotiating with other project managers for common resources.  Yet most of us have to learn these skills by observation or by self-directed learning.

I spent 21 years out of school before finding a company where everyone, without exception, is sent for formal training before being given projects to manage. Even though by now I had done a lot of the self-teaching, I still learned valuable information on not only setting up a project right to minimize the risk of problems, but also — something usually neglected — on getting the project out of trouble when things go awry.

In addition, this company uses a coaching system in which every project has an assistant project manager to help with management tasks, ensure redundancy in case the PM is unavailable, and provide mentorship in learning the ropes. We have tools, we have support, we have a safety net.

The wonder, really, is that I spent so long and worked at so many companies without receiving the training or support.  In these places, you got technical training fairly easily, but you only received PM training as (a) a sort of accolade or pat on the back if you were doing well, or (b) a corrective measure if you were doing poorly but they still needed to keep you in the position.

Imagine that!  These companies all chose to let their professionals learn by making mistakes on their clients’ projects rather than get them trained, because of the training costs or because they were too busy putting out fires rather than planning ahead.  What a waste.

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