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Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

East Coast people, first, let me be honest: yes, we’re all giggling about your 5.8 earthquake on this coast.  And no, it isn’t fair, but you probably laugh at our occasional funnel clouds.

Second, it’s still very important to go report what you observed if you felt the earthquake; use this USGS link:

USGS: Did You Feel It?

Why? Because it helps geologists map exact earthquake soil response for specific types of seismic waves, and it helps engineers assess actual and potential damage. I makes everyone safer in the long run.

Even with itty-bitty little quakes…  (Kidding!)

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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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Nothing momentous to report, just a snapshot of my students working in the lab this afternoon.  No broken glassware, no spill, no disasters (that I’m aware of, anyway.)  Hopefully the results won’t be too wacky either!

The water they are analyzing for total coliforms and fecal coliforms comes from a site near the mouth of Martin Slough in Eureka.  The results will be used by the Capstone Project class (seniors graduating in the spring, working on their final project) to design a restoration that will include a wastewater treatment system for agricultural runoff on the site.  So it’s important that the Water Quality class pass good quality results to the Capstone Project students.

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I’m teaching two classes this semester: Environmental Impact Assessment, primarily for seniors; and Water Quality and Environmental Health, for second- and third-year students.  The water quality class is split up into two groups for lab purposes.  We took advantage of the unseasonably beautiful weather this past week to go do some field work along Jolly Giant Creek in Arcata.  That’s the kind of afternoon that reminds me why it’s so much fun to be an environmental engineer.

Both classes are really fun subjects for me.  I have a lot of good material to work from, and I’m trying to hone my teaching skills.  I’ve been reading Teaching Engineering, by Philip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz, a classic and solid reference on the topic.  My goal is to rely less on lectures and raise the quality of those lectures.  I need to use more diverse ways of imparting the course materials.

I’ve also been buffing up on my skills with the new information technologies we now have to assist with teaching, and particularly with Moodle, the chosen course management system at HSU.   The tool is interesting but I’m not certain it actually saves time, it just makes things more transparent.  Or not.

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Sigh.  Although my students do the best they can with the background they have, I continue to be stunned at the low requirements of the American education system. A sizable portion of college and university classes here are basically remedial high school. I’m getting lots of people in their second or third year in a four-year engineering program who have never had any statistics at all. They will have to take one stats class before they graduate, but it’s not prerequisite to many other classes so they tend to take it late in the program. It seriously limits their tools and understanding.

Let’s compare:

Requirements to graduate from Polytechnique of Montreal:

  • Need to have enough high school math, physics and chemistry to take the 2-year Pure and Applied Sciences program at a CEGEP (junior college)
  • There, 3 physics classes, 6 math classes, 3 chemistry classes, 1 bio class, plus 4 PE classes, 4 philosophy classes, 4 French classes, and some English (60 units total).
  • Polytechnique: 120 units of solid, wall-to-wall engineering.  No relief from any GEs or electives.

Requirement to graduate here:

  • No requirements on high school classes, though math, physics and chemistry are recommended.
  • 27 units of GE
  • 106 units of sciences and engineering including the same math, physics, and chemistry I had to take in junior college.

Conclusion: Canadian engineers graduate WAY more prepared.  I cringe when I hear people talking about how difficult the program or a class is.

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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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