Posts Tagged ‘Career’

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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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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As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts this week, I’ve been reflecting on career matters, including what I’ve changed in the last year and a half.

First, I read up on job search and career management, and the difference between the two (this is the theme of the week). I thought a lot about what I was looking for, and I formulated to myself what kind of job I wanted: “To find a job where I can continue to not only make an adequate wage for my efforts and qualifications, but also feel proud of and challenged by my work, and team up with a group of people I can respect.”

I greatly improved my resume’s style. I brushed up my skills and understanding of interviewing, networking (a word I dislike), career planning, project management, etc. I tried to make my online presence more coherent and to adopt an organized approach to contact management. I learned to wring more out of Google Calendar, Gmail, Outlook, Jibber Jobber, Box.net, and other tools that help me keep track of “people” information.

I got involved in local professional associations and I try to stay abreast of events in my community, my profession, and the world. I draw connections and I look for opportunities. Most of all, I’m very conscious of how I address people, what kind of impression I leave, and how I listen to them (that’s not new, just more conscious).

My new employer also provided training. The company uses a project management system base on the PSMJ training, and sends all new project managers to take the PSMJ A/E/C Bootcamp (that’s architects/engineers/contractors for non-jargon speakers.) There I learned a lot of interesting things which I plan to discuss tomorrow.

The change that is most embarrassing to confess: I improved my dress code at work. It’s so stupid to say, but I had reached the point when I was not even trying. Part of the reason was that it didn’t seem to make any difference in my work. A larger part was my bus commute in rainy Seattle and the long walk up along steep, windy hills to the bus stop. It seems that no matter how much I tried, I always reached the office wrinkled, rumpled, and my hair in disarray, so why bother?

Nowadays I’ve expanded my wardrobe a little bit and use accessories more. It takes actually surprisingly little to dress well (leaving aside the problem of long bus commutes for now). I have a few jackets and slacks in solid, “safe” colours (blue, ivory, black, gray, green, camel, brown) that I can mix and match, a few shirts and sweaters in solid colours that can be coordinated with these combinations, a few pairs of “good” jeans, and a few nice white shirts (alas, I hate ironing.) I vary the combinations and add yet more variety by matching with scarves and jewelry. It’s silly, but dressing up seems to improve how people see you at work.

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I’m not one of those people that life doesn’t throw anything at you which you can’t handle, or that everything happens for a reason. I think that’s the kind of thing we say to other people to make them and ourselves feel better, but in reality things just happen without predetermination. History unfolds as we make it, minute by minute and decision by decision. Sometimes people are handed more hardship than they can handle at that point, and they need help. And sometimes they don’t get this help, and they sink.

We can recover from failure. It’s not fun, and we are probably changed forever, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have another start. We take detours, we stumble, we double back, we fall and get up. If we have vision, luck, or help, and preferably all three, we can have another go and create something that is of lasting value to ourselves.

I also believe that we tend to overlook opportunities around us. One thing I’m very good at, for whatever mysterious reason, is looking at a situation and thinking: What are the opportunities here? How can we turn this problem into a solution? Is this a constraint or a resource? I’ve trained myself to think this way, and it’s tremendously useful. Not every problem can be turned around with this sort of aikido, but many become much more manageable.

Moreover, that approach fosters a mental attitude of receptivity, of looking for gems in the dirt. The dirt is still there, but unless you’re looking for them you will rarely just stumble upon the gems. I freely admit that I’m a very lucky person by any standard; but I believe my greatest luck is having the capacity to look for and notice this good fortune when it is nearby.

This is not some sort of “you make your own luck”, “The Secret” kind of positive thinking clap-trap that provides a pat on the back to the fortunate and a boot to the head to those down on their luck. I’m just suggesting that all else being equal, we have every advantage in looking for the hidden opportunities rather than waiting for Lady Luck.

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