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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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Trash canSometimes people are just so strange. In case anyone blinked and missed it, we’re in the middle of a recession, an economic downturn, whatever you want to call it. A lot of people are out looking for a job (or two) as we hit higher unemployment rates than we’ve seen in decades. And yet, people who should know better still send crappy résumés and provide dumb answers in writing to the most obvious questions.

I can’t really give specifics, but I’ve just encountered stunning examples of job seekers shooting themselves in the foot. I’m not talking about just a little dull or lacking pizazz; I’m talking abysmal errors that are sure to make any reader flee. So let me quickly dispell a few notions about résumés:

  1. A résumé is not a 10-page list of projects. Unless you’re applying for a very specific type of job, such as faculty in a higher learning institution, keep it to a page or two. If it’s appropriate for your type of work, you can always submit a list of projects as a separate support document, keeping the descriptions short, sweet, and punchy. You can also add all sorts of detail on your Website. But your résumé? No, keep it brief.
  2. A résumé is not a list of previous jobs held. It’s a short space in which to drive home the point about why an employer would want you, and not somebody else, to work for them. Tell people about problems you solved, things you improved.
  3. Spell-checking is not optional.. And that includes correctly spelling the names of the person and the company you are applying to. If you can’t spell, do find someone who can.
  4. Visual appeal is not just the cherry on top — it’s the framework for your résumé. It must be easy to read and to recognize when left with a pile of other résumés, yet tasteful and professional. Stick to white or off-white paper of good quality but without ostentation; use crisp fonts that are easy to read, contrasting pleasantly to help direct the eye. Go read The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams; it’s inexpensive, easy to read, and tremendously useful. Hand-written résumés are right out. Seriously, people.
  5. Petulance is not endearing. No matter how justified you think you are about blow-outs with past employers, please don’t trumpet them proudly in your résumé, nor in your cover letter, your interview, your e-mails, etc. Particularly if you’re now applying to the same employer, for the same boss.

Consider hiring a professional to help you with your résumé. For $100 to $200 you should be able to get something good. No, the pro can’t write it all for you; for things pertaining to your own area of expertise, you know more than the résumé writer. But do listen to him or her on their own area of expertise!

Bottom line: we all need a bit of help in a job search, because looking for work is not our job! But there is no excuse for sabotaging one’s own job-seeking effort with a wretched first contact.

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If, like many of my friends, you are searching for a new job — unemployed, underemployed, looking for new horizons — you may be tempted to try the “free resume review” service from The Ladders. What’s the harm in getting a little free advice, right?

If so, I recommend you read this informative and courageous post by Jason Alba. Turns out The Ladders’ resume critiques are cut-and-paste form letters assembled by sales personnel, worded to give the most alarming picture possible and scare job seekers into paying $700-$1,000 for a resume.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t pay these prices, even if it was not a scam. All a pseudo-review like that would have done would have been to demoralize me. Just go to one of the many reputable resume services linked in the article and comments, they will also be much, much cheaper — and provide you with personalized help, not a form letter.

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stopIn this troubled economy, we all know people who are looking for a job, whether they’re still employed or not. And I take it as a good sign that we want to be helpful, and pass tips along when we hear of a good opportunity that might match a contact’s background.

Still, there is such a thing as going too far with the networking. Here are a few cases when you want to stop and think: “Do I give a name and contact info to the recruiter, or do I simply pass the information along to my contacts who might be interested?”

In all these examples, the premise is that you are contacted by someone actively recruiting for a job, and the job opening seems like a good match for one of your contacts.

  1. If you know your contact is unemployed and actively looking: Yes, go ahead and provide your friend’s contact information to the recruiter; and let your friend know at once.
  2. If you know your contact is currently employed but actively looking: If your contact gave you the OK to disseminate her/his contact information, provide it to the recruiter; otherwise, NO, ask the recruiter to send you the job description and contact your friend to pass it along.
  3. If your contact is or may be employed but you think s/he might still be interested: NO, do not pass your friend’s contact information along. Ask the recruiter to send you the job description and contact your friend to pass it along.

I know we all want to be helpful, we really are aching to make a difference for all our friends by helping them get back on their feet but some help may be a nuisance or even a hurdle. At the very least, hastily passing contact information without permission — especially from contacts that are not actually friends but more distant — can be a breach of etiquette and privacy.

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LinkedIn just borrowed yet one more feature from Facebook — and that’s a good thing.

As of this week, you can see two little links that say “Reply privately” and “Add comment” after the status line updates of each your contact. So if one contact says he or she is preparing a white paper on your favourite topic, or is visiting your city this week, you can chime in with a question, a comment, a recommendation, a congratulation, whatever.

The feature may seem like no big thing, and it’s certainly been available for a long time on Facebook, but it’s a really good opportunity to engage your contacts in conversation, to have short, quick, friendly exchanges without either side have to devote a whole lot of time to correspondence.

Another nice feature that is reminiscent of Facebook, and has been in place for a few months now, is the ability to post not only questions but also links to articles and news items in your LinkedIn Groups. This is a good way to share tidbits and technical information that may be of interest to your peers.

Both the comments and the news items are nice ways to stay in touch in a light-handed way. It has been nice to exchange a few notes with people in my network regarding books we are reading or industry news of mutual interest. I’m happy with the new features.

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newspaperHere is tip for my friends who are in-between jobs or looking out for new opportunities.  (This is also useful for just about anyone on the Web.)

Google Reader has a very easy and friendly interface that lets you collect and organize many sources of of information, as long as they have a feed.  That includes most blogs and a lot of news sources that use this format.  This is a fantastic way to keep up with the news in your professional field, collect job postings from sites with feeds, etc.

1. Go set up a Google account if don’t already have one.  It looks like you need to create a Gmail account when you set up your ID, but you can actually use another e-mail address as your login.  Get the Gmail account too, it’s useful for a lot of other features and you can always point it at your main address or leave it to collect spam.

2. Go to Google Reader by selecting it from the Google front page top menu (under “More”) or by clicking the direct link above.

3. Set up a few subscriptions to get started.  If you have a blog, start with that.   There’s an “Add Subscription” button in the upper left-hand corner; click it to add a link to a site that has feed.  Most blogs will automatically be recognized; in a few cases, you may have to locate the “Feed” or “RSS” link on the blog’s site.  When you add a subscription and Goggle Reader recognizes the feed, it will show the site’s title in your list (left-hand panel in the lower half.)

4. Explore how subscriptions work: You’ll notice that the number of recent unread items appears in parenthesis, and subscriptions that have unread posts are listed in bold.  Don’t panic if you get hundreds of unread post; you can mark them all as read by clicking on the “Mark all as read” button in the main viewing panel’s top bar.

5. Organize into folders: Once you have  a few of these subscriptions, the panel will start getting cluttered.  Start sorting them by clicking on the names in the list, then on the “Feed settings” button in the main viewing panel’s top bar, and selecting “New Folder” (or an existing folder) from the drop-down choices.  For example, my list of subscriptions includes folders like Career, Professional news, Environment, Science, Politics, Culture, etc.

6. Customize settings: By clicking on the tiny link at the bottom left (“Manage subscriptions”), you can access a page that lets you customize your subscriptions (e.g., rename, delete, change folder), your folders (e.g., make public or private, e-mail links), your general reading settings, some gadgets to add Google Reader to your iPhone or browser, and import/export.  For example, see how I don’t have links for my Politics and Culture folders?  That’s because I kept them marked as private; by default, all new folders are marked private.  But I made some other folders public so I could share them.

It actually takes very little time to transfer your collection of haphazard blog links this way and get it organized.  An hour should have you well set up to collect information daily and keep abreast of your news sources.  Why do this?  Because it will help you get the pulse of your professional field and your job market, and thus help you answer questions knowledgeably and keep up with opportunities and ideas.


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This is an invitation to all my friends — and they are many — who are looking for a job these day. It’s a crappy, crappy economic climate we’re in, and the year is shaping up to be rough; I want to help those I can.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago to talk about the best online resources* I had found for networking, job search, and career planning. Now I’d like my many friends to tell me about their skills and the kind of job they’re looking for, to “give me their pitch.”

If I run across a contact who can help, or an opening that would fit you, I need to know! So please, send me a short summary, say the paragraph you’d put at the top of a good resume, or the core of a good cover letter, so I can keep my eyes open for you. Tell me what I need to tell about you to a contact. Better yet, I’d like to post these summaries here, if that’s OK with you.

I don’t know how much it will help you, but at the very least it may make you boil down your ideas to a short-and-sweet summary, and focus your search. Or if you freelance or have your own business, send me your info too!

P.S.: Hee.  The very next day, there’s a relevant post on the JibberJobber blog: “Job seekers, help your network help you”.  This — item #1 in particular — is exactly what I’m talking about! I need to know how to help you.


* I realise that these are more useful for certain types of jobs than others; if you’re looking for a job in construction, or in-store sales, or modelling at Abercrombie and Fitch, then you may rely less on resumes and online presence, but give it a thought anyway.

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