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Posts Tagged ‘management’

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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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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Humboldt County General Plan Update news: the next “town hall”-style meeting is planned for June 11; it’s a continuation of the April 30 meeting.

Land Use Element “Town Hall Style” Continued Planning Commission Meeting

Humboldt County Draft General Plan – Land Use Element

June 11, 2009

The Humboldt County Planning Commission will host a public workshop on the Draft Land Use Element beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 11, 2009 in the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater, 7351 Tompkins Hill Road, Eureka (Building #16 on the attached map). The workshop is the continuation of the April 30th Planning Commission meeting, and is presented as a forum for open dialogue between the Commissioners, planning staff, and the public. A format similar to a “town hall” meeting will be used to discuss the draft policies contained in the Land Use Element and the Plan Alternatives.

The purpose of this meeting is to receive public input on the Land Use Element of the Draft General Plan. This meeting follows two staff presentations to the Planning Commission on the Draft Land Use Element. During the April 16, 2009 Planning Commission meeting, the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts for Sections 4.2 (Growth Planning), 4.3 (Urban Lands), 4.4 (Rural Lands) and the Land Use Classifications were introduced to the Planning Commission. During the April 23, 2009 Planning Commission meeting, the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts for Sections 4.5 (Agricultural Resources), 4.6 (Forest Resources) and 4.7 (Public Lands) were presented. Archived streaming of these meetings is available on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors website, http://county-internet/board/.

Background on the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts:

The Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts explain what the major issues are for these sections and list the goals, policies, standards, and implementation measures for Plan Alternatives A, B, C and D in one chart for comparison purposes. Copies are available on the GPU website at www.planupdate.org and will also be available for viewing at the Humboldt County Library (all branches), Kinkos and the Community Development Services Department front counter. Also available is a “Users Guide” that explains the format of the charts and how they will be used by the decision makers in their deliberation process for ultimately adopting a new General Plan for the County.

For further information, or to be placed on the email list to receive notices of workshops, please contact Martha Spencer by email at mspencer@co.humboldt.ca.us or by telephone at (707) 268-3704 or Tom Hofweber at 268-3738.

Recap of the four alternatives:

  • Plan Alternative A accommodates growth by promoting infill and by focusing growth in urban areas with adequate services. The alternative increases protection of resource production lands, and is considered the “environmentally superior” alternative. This alternative is generally more prescriptive, and has more detailed and specific policy sets associated with it.
  • Plan Alternative B (Proposed Plan) balances protection of resource lands with the need for residential development through focused development, appropriate urban expansion, and incentive-based clustering policies to encourage conservation of resource production lands.
  • Plan Alternative C is a higher growth and less regulatory alternative providing additional residential capacity. This alternative, particularly in rural areas, increases the amount of land planned for residential estate and rural residential uses. This alternative is generally less prescriptive, and has policy language that is more flexible.
  • Plan Alternative D — the No Action Alternative — is the existing 1984 Framework Plan.

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Humboldt County General Plan Update news: notice received Monday from the Planning Division of Humboldt County Community Development Services:

Housing Element “Town Hall Style” Planning Commission Meeting

Humboldt County Draft General Plan — Land Use Element

April 30, 2009

The Humboldt County Planning Commission will host an informal public workshop on the Draft Land Use Element beginning at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 30, 2009 in the Board of Supervisors chambers, Humboldt County Courthouse, Eureka. The workshop is intended to provide a forum for an open dialogue between the Commissioners, planning staff, and the public. A format similar to a “town hall” meeting will be used to discuss the draft policies contained in the Land Use Element and the Plan Alternatives.

This meeting follows two staff presentations to the Planning Commission on the Draft Land Use Element. During the April 16, 2009 Planning Commission meeting, the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts for Sections 4.2 (Growth Planning), 4.3 (Urban Lands), 4.4 (Rural Lands) and the Land Use Classifications were introduced to the Planning Commission. During the April 23, 2009 Planning Commission meeting, the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts for Sections 4.5 (Agricultural Resources), 4.6 (Forest Resources) and 4.7 (Public Lands)were presented. This upcoming meeting is open to discussion of all the proposed policies and plan alternatives for the Draft Land Use Element.

Background on the Land Use Element and Key Issues:

The Land Use Element provides for the distribution, location and extent of uses of land for housing, business, industry, natural resources, open space, recreation, and other uses. It guides decision makers, planners, and the general public in fulfilling the ultimate pattern and character of development within the unincorporated areas of the county. The policies of the proposed Plan represent a legislated balance between the individual rights of property owners and the health, safety, and welfare needs of the community.

Background on the Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts:

The Plan Alternatives – Key Issues and Comparison Charts explain what the major issues are for these sections and list the goals, policies, standards, and implementation measures for Plan Alternatives A, B, C and D in one chart for comparison purposes. Copies are available on the GPU website at www.planupdate.org and will also be available for viewing at the Humboldt County Library (all branches), Kinkos and the Community Development Services Department front counter. Also available is a “Users Guide” that explains the format of the charts and how they will be used by the decision makers in their deliberation process for ultimately adopting a new General Plan for the County.

For further information, or to be placed on the email list to receive notices of workshops, please contact Martha Spencer by email at mspencer@co.humboldt.ca.us or by telephone at (707) 268-3704 or Tom Hofweber at 268-3738.

Recap of the four alternatives:

  • Plan Alternative A accommodates growth by promoting infill and by focusing growth in urban areas with adequate services. The alternative increases protection of resource production lands, and is considered the “environmentally superior” alternative. This alternative is generally more prescriptive, and has more detailed and specific policy sets associated with it.
  • Plan Alternative B (Proposed Plan) balances protection of resource lands with the need for residential development through focused development, appropriate urban expansion, and incentive-based clustering policies to encourage conservation of resource production lands.
  • Plan Alternative C is a higher growth and less regulatory alternative providing additional residential capacity. This alternative, particularly in rural areas, increases the amount of land planned for residential estate and rural residential uses. This alternative is generally less prescriptive, and has policy language that is more flexible.
  • Plan Alternative D — the No Action Alternative — is the existing 1984 Framework Plan.

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The Humboldt County General Plan Update is marching ever onward. Notice received Thursday from the Planning Division of Humboldt County Community Development Services:

Notice of Release

Release of the Plan Alternatives for the Humboldt County 2009 Draft General Plan

April 2, 2009

The Key Issues and Plan Alternatives Comparison Charts for the draft General Plan Update (GPU) for Sections 4.5 (Agricultural Resources), 4.6 (Forest Resources) and 4.7 (Public Lands) are now available to the public. Public hearings by the Planning Commission will begin on April 16 and April 23, 2009 with staff presentations on key issues and comparison of the alternatives for the Land Use Element (see attached draft Planning Commission hearing schedule) and public testimony on these sections will begin on April 30th.

The Key Issues and Plan Alternatives Comparison Charts explain what the major issues are for these sections and list the goals, policies, standards, and implementation measures for Plan Alternatives A, B, C and D in one chart for comparison purposes. Copies are available on the GPU website at www.planupdate.org and will also be available for viewing at the Humboldt County Library (all branches), Kinkos and the Community Development Services Department front counter. For further information, or to be placed on the email list to receive notices of workshops, please contact Martha Spencer by email at mspencer@co.humboldt.ca.us or by telephone at (707) 268-3704 or Tom Hofweber at 268-3738.

The new comparison tables are in three separate PDF files of 22, 26, and 10 pages respectively (86 to 205 kilobytes). They complement the four tables released on March 18 for Sections 4.2 (Growth Planning), 4.3 (Urban Lands), 4.4 (Rural Lands) and 4.8 (Land Use Classifications). Happily, the first four tables have also been split into four separate files, easier to download than the original chunky single-file release.

Recap of the four alternatives:

  • Plan Alternative A accommodates growth by promoting infill and by focusing growth in urban areas with adequate services. The alternative increases protection of resource production lands, and is considered the “environmentally superior” alternative. This alternative is generally more prescriptive, and has more detailed and specific policy sets associated with it.
  • Plan Alternative B (Proposed Plan) balances protection of resource lands with the need for residential development through focused development, appropriate urban expansion, and incentive-based clustering policies to encourage conservation of resource production lands.
  • Plan Alternative C is a higher growth and less regulatory alternative providing additional residential capacity. This alternative, particularly in rural areas, increases the amount of land planned for residential estate and rural residential uses. This alternative is generally less prescriptive, and has policy language that is more flexible.
  • Plan Alternative D — the No Action Alternative — is the existing 1984 Framework Plan.

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Notice received Wednesday from the Planning Division of Humboldt County Community Development Services:

Notice of Release

Release of the Plan Alternatives for the Humboldt County 2009 Draft General Plan

March 18, 2009

The Key Issues and Plan Alternatives Comparison Charts for the draft General Plan Update (GPU) for Sections 4.2 (Growth Planning), 4.3 (Urban Lands), 4.4 (Rural Lands) and the Land Use Classifications are now available to the public. The Key Issues and Plan Alternatives Comparison charts explains what the major issues are for these sections and lists the goals, policies, standards, and Implementation Measures for plan alternatives A, B, C and D in one chart for comparison purposes. Copies are available on the GPU website at www.planupdate.org and will also be available for viewing at the Humboldt County Library (all branches), Kinkos and the Community Development Services Department front counter. Public hearings by the Planning Commission will begin April 16, 2009 (see attached draft Planning Commission hearing schedule). Notices of these dates will be provided to both those individuals on our mailing list and published in the paper.

For further information, or to be placed on the email list to receive notices of workshops, please contact Martha Spencer by email at mspencer@co.humboldt.ca.us or by telephone at (707) 268-3704 or Tom Hofweber at 268-3738.

The new comparison tables are in an 86-pages, 500 kilobyte PDF file. The four alternatives evaluated are:

  • Plan Alternative A accommodates growth by promoting infill and by focusing growth in urban areas with adequate services. The alternative increases protection of resource production lands, and is considered the “environmentally superior” alternative. This alternative is generally more prescriptive, and has more detailed and specific policy sets associated with it.
  • Plan Alternative B (Proposed Plan) balances protection of resource lands with the need for residential development through focused development, appropriate urban expansion, and incentive-based clustering policies to encourage conservation of resource production lands.
  • Plan Alternative C is a higher growth and less regulatory alternative providing additional residential capacity. This alternative, particularly in rural areas, increases the amount of land planned for residential estate and rural residential uses. This alternative is generally less prescriptive, and has policy language that is more flexible.
  • Plan Alternative D — the No Action Alternative — is the existing 1984 Framework Plan.

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