Posts Tagged ‘economy’

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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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 week I had to make a little trip toward the eastern edge of the state, to Susanville (which I discovered to be a really pretty, charming little town.) I left in the evening and stayed in Redding overnight so I could meet with my colleagues there in the morning before heading out to Susanville.

Since our company has a corporate account with the chain, I stayed at the Red Lion Inn. It’s handy, it means the bill is handled directly; I don’t have to put the charge on my credit card and get it reimbursed. Besides, as far as I’m concerned all these chains offer more or less the same comforts; all that separates them is price and service.

I’ve stayed at the Red Lion Inn in Eureka before; it’s fine, not a memorable experience but OK. Well, the Redding Red Lion made Eureka’s look like a shining beacon of suave, cosmopolitan charm.

It’s not that anything terrible happened; it’s more that the service was generally disappointing. For example, the room had a single bath towel, and half a pot of old coffee had been left in the little in-room coffee-maker. But the best was the bar.

It was 8:30 pm when I got to the hotel, and I was tired and parched. I checked in, dropped my luggage in the room, etc. so it was at most 9 pm when I came back to look for something to drink. The dining room was closed but the bar seemed open so I went in, looking for a glass of iced tea, lemonade, soda, cold water, whatever. Two off-shift employees were talking to a crusty old bartender who looked and sounded like a triplet to Selma and Patty Bouvier. I had seen the off-shift employees a little earlier, smoking outside; now they were chatting animatedly with the bartender.

I looked around; there were no customers at all. The three employees, including the bartender, paid no attention to me at all as I waited for a few moments. I thought maybe the bar was closed and the crew was about to clean up the place so I stepped out to check the posted hours, which extended until 10 pm. I went back in, waited another moment until somebody took a breath, and asked the bartender: “Is the place open?”

“What?” growled Bartender Lady.

“Is this place open?” I repeated.

“Is WHAT open??”

I was a little baffled, but one of the off-shift employees helpfully clarified. “She wants to know if the bar is open. Oh yeah, there’s at least half an hour to go.”

And with this, the same off-shift employee returned to telling and miming her adventures at dog obedience training class. The three slightly turned their backs to me and Bartender Lady was pointedly enraptured in the conversation. I stood there for a moment more, stunned, tired from a day of work and three hours of driving, trying to figure out to whether they would actually offer any service to, you know, a customer. Unasked, Bartender Lady pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels and started pouring for her pals.

At that point, I got the message and gave up on even asking for the location of a soda machine. I walked to a nearby gas station and got a bottle of ice-cold water.

(By the way, the next morning I received friendly and competent service in the hotel restaurant, which went a long way to improve my view; I dutifully filled the little feedback card and praised the nice lady there.)

None of the experience was particularly traumatic, especially for someone who’s had to sleep in some pretty damn roachy motels (including a bed set up in a basement boiler room, next to the janitor’s mop, with water running on the floor.) But given that the hotel looked about 30% occupied, and is set on a strip filled with other similar hotels, you’d think they would make more of an effort to offer service in this economy.

I would not be surprised to learn that there have been employee cuts and the remaining ones are disgruntled. Whatever — the root cause is still bad hotel management. Don’t treat your employees so poorly that they’ll give bad service, and get rid of bad apples.

This resulted in lost income for them the very same day, too! Along the way to Susanville, I told the story to two co-workers; and one said: “Oh, I have to stay in town tonight so I need a hotel, but I’ll go across the street, then.”

Instant lost customer — and you can bet I’m not going to make an effort to go back either. How stupid is that, when everyone is hurting for business?

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Reprinted from today’s message from the Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation:

spzflogo1Dear Zoo Members & Supporters,

We need your help to Save Sequoia Park Zoo!

You may have read in the paper recently Eureka City Councilmember Larry Glass’s suggestion that the City of Eureka close the Sequoia Park Zoo in order to balance the 2009/10 budget (see two articles: 1. Eureka gears up for fiscal crunch and 2. Eureka to hold public budget meeting).

At this time, we’re not clear on how far Councilman Glass is intending to take the idea of permanent closure of the zoo; however, he has raised the issue several times before in earlier budget sessions, and we do expect it to come up for formal consideration as the City works to close the current budget shortfall.

We know that you, as members and supporters of the Zoo, don’t want to see Sequoia Park Zoo close its gates after being an integral part of our community for over 100 years. So here’s what you can do to make sure the City hears your views:

  • Attend the City’s Budget Study Session Community Forum on Monday, March 23 at the Wharfinger Building from 6:30-9 pm.
  • Write and/or call the City of Eureka Council Members (contact information below). They really are looking for public input about these issues and will welcome your feedback.
  • Spread the word, and become a fan of our ‘alternate’ Facebook page, Save Sequoia Park Zoo!

City contact information:

Virginia Bass, Mayor
Phone: 707-441-4172 Fax:707-441-4138
Email: virginia@ci.eureka.ca.gov

Larry Glass, Councilmember Ward 1
Phone: 707-441-4169 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: lglass@ci.eureka.ca.gov

Linda Atkins, Councilmember Ward 2
Phone: 707-441-4168 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: latkins@ci.eureka.ca.gov

Jeff Leonard, Councilmember Ward 3
Phone: 707-441-4170 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: jleonard@ci.eureka.ca.gov

Frank Jager, Councilmember Ward 4
Phone: 707-441-4167 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: fjager@ci.eureka.ca.gov

Mike Jones. Councilmember Ward 5
Phone: 707-441-4171 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: mjones@ci.eureka.ca.gov

David Tyson, City Manager
Phone: 707-441-4144 Fax: 707-441-4138
Email: dtyson@ci.eureka.ca.gov

All Council members can be reached by postal mail at:

Eureka City Council
531 K Street
Eureka, CA 95501

Thank you for your support!

Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation

Board of Directors
Jeff Lamoree, President
Chuck Dominick, Vice President
Pat Bitton, Secretary
Roy E. Corsetti, Treasurer
Gene Bass
Craig Benich
John Ford
Louise Jacobson
Frank Jager
Naomi Johnson
Jeff Leonard
Charlotte McDonald
Marci O’Flanagan
Bruce Osborne
Donna Pace

Geri Bass
Melinda Booth
Arlene Ghera
Natalie Gonzalez
Juanco Ignacio
JoAnn Nord
Meagan Tatum

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Election day rainbow -- Copyright 2008 Edmund MethenyI really liked Mark Morford’s column today in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Obama vs. the Fear: Grin and be enthralled, or tremble and stuff dollar bills into your mattress?”

With his customary zest, he describes our alternating between fear of disaster and relief that someone competent and equipped with a conscience is at the helm right now.  It really hit the spot for me; I think there’s a lot of this bipolar disorder going on right now.

For my part, I choose optimism tempered with alertness.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Looking east from Bald Mountain, by the_tahoe_guy -- Creative Commons license: Attribution 2.0 GenericDuring the last couple of weeks’ worth of budget battles in this state, the California Conservation Corps came really close to extinction.  This morning, I received the following message from the ad-hoc grassroots organization Save-the-CCC:

Last Friday, Governor Schwarzenegger signed an historic budget package to solve California’s $42 billion deficit and move California forward from the brink of financial collapse.

I am extremely pleased to report that funding for the CCC is restored by this budget through this fiscal year and next.

In a message to CCC staff and corps members, CCC Director, David Muraki said,  “We are thankful that the Governor, in the final analysis, decided to support the CCC during these tough and uncertain times.

Threatened with elimination just 50 days ago and in the midst of the worst budget crisis and worst economic downturn in generations, the CCC stands here today having not just turned around an elimination proposal, but, stronger, more unified, more energized than ever before, and ready to tackle the new challenges before us.”

The Save-the-CCC Committee would like to thank Governor Schwarzenegger, Senator Steinberg, Senator Dave Cogdill, Assemblymember Karen Bass and Assemblymember Michael Villines for their recognition for the CCC’s value to the state and to the youth it serves by restoring the CCC.

The committee would also like to express it’s gratitude to Attorney General Gerry Brown and Former Governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis for taking a historic step in their joint support of our nation’s flagship conservation corps program.

We want to acknowledge the CCC Foundation whose quick action and effective press releases were the catalyst for this amazing grass roots effort.  The local corps also played an important role in rejecting any proposal that did not benifit all corps.

We especially want to thank — everyone who sent a letter, fax, signed a petition, made a phone call or legislative visit on behalf of the CCC — the many environmental and youth service organizations, who signed on to help — the green jobs advocates and leaders throughout the country who defended the CCC as a standard bearer of the field and what the field is poised to become — the grassroots leaders and many unsung champions, who started petition sites, organized rallies, and generated waves of community support. It was each of these individual actions that, together, created the groundswell that turned the tide.

Throughout this period of uncertainty for the CCC has continued to focus on its mission as it has since 1976.  We wish the CCC continued success for generations to come.

Thank you to everyone who wrote to protest the cuts — and to Kym for alerting us in the first place.

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Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

Remember last week when we talked about Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision to close the California Conservation Corps?  The grassroots organization Save-the-CCC has started a letter campaign to protest the proposal.  But even if you’ve already sent a letter, they need your additional help immediately:

The governor and four legislative leaders are working behind closed doors to finalize a budget in the next few days.  Save-the-CCC needs you to send a FAX right now to the governor and the legislative leaders to ask them to restore funding for the CCC.

Click below to send a fax (it won’t cost you anything!):


548 faxes were sent yesterday, and Save-the-CCC hopes to have another 500 today. 

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