Posts Tagged ‘society’

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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My husband gave me a local cookbook for Christmas, “Locally Delicious”, which was just published about a month ago. I’ve been talking about cooking more often (he does most of the cooking)and we’re both partisans of the idea of eating locally grown or produced food, in season. I was raised that way — my mom always goes into cooking overdrive during the successive harvests of strawberries, string beans, corn, tomatoes, raspberries, etc., and still buys locally produced beef, chicken, bread, cheese, etc.

This weekend I tried three recipes from Locally Delicious: the cross rib roast (Humboldt grass-fed beef cross rib was on sale!), spicy roasted beets, and oven rosemary potatoes. Everything but the rosemary, salt and pepper was locally produced. (OK, the olive oil was regional, from Sonoma County.) All three recipes were keepers and quite easy. I liked that I was able to prepare everything in advance in the morning and leave it in the fridge until I was ready to pop the dishes in the oven.

I like “slow food” and I detest most instant, frozen, highly prepared foods (with some exceptions for brands like Casbah, Newman, and Oetker). I like a seasonal menu that reflects the changes around us. I like restaurants where the dishes taste a little different every time you go because they’re made in small batches by a cook, not an industrial assembly line. I like planning a menu based on what looks fresh. I like the rich flavours of produce and meat that have not had to travel more than a few hours to reach my kitchen. I like encouraging our local producers.

There are resources online for people trying to find out more about their local food chain. A good, food-lover’s book explaining our alimentary systems is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

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Sigh.  I’m sorry, I don’t actually want to be a cynic and suspect scams everywhere, but I think last Thursday’s “Courage Night” may have been one.  Ostensibly, the event was about gathering money and attention for the fight against breast cancer; however, I have serious reservations about the tenor of the event.

Key guests were Berny Dohrmann and Susie Carder, best known (and actually not that widely) for writing about, and pushing, “The Secret”.  The central tenet of this pseudo self-help book and the movement it generated is that “positive thinking” is all it takes to change your life, to ward off the bad things and instead receive wealth, health, and happiness.

While it seems fair to say that, all else being equal, strong morale is usually beneficial and helps sustain one through challenges, this is not sufficient.  I really hate philosophies that ultimately place the blame for ill fortune on the victim: if you are not wealthy, healthy, and happy, it must be because you don’t want it badly enough, right?  Big comfort and help for someone who, after a goodly dose of The Secret, or certain New Agey versions of the concept of karma, or firm belief  in the power of prayer alone, is still wrestling with cancer, unemployment, or depression.

I’m very, very fortunate, and I have always been.  Sure, there have been times of sadness and struggle, but in the end I’ve had a wonderful family, husband, and friends, good health, a career I love, and many other interests to keep me in love with life.  However, I am acutely conscious that all of this is a result of great luck.

I also know, and we all do, much worthier people with fantastic attitudes who have suffered the outrageous slings and arrow of fortune, who can’t seem to get an even break, and who die early of disease or accident.  I do not believe that lack of a positive attitude explains that.

Let’s face it: sickness, ruptures, and reversals of fortune happen because ours is a stochastic universe — in other words, shit happens.  Not because you’re a bad person or because you had a negative attitude, but because it’s random bad stuff.

The way to act against this is to develop compassion for one another, to install social and personal safety nets, to help one another, to fund research into medicine and beneficial technologies, to pick ourselves up and try again.  Magical thinking, the idea that if we wish hard enough everything will be all right, is not only silly, it’s downright dangerous and callous.

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wtfSometimes I can’t believe the stuff I see on LinkedIn.  To wit: someone asks “Are arranged marriage more successful, and why or why not?”

I’m flabbergasted by both the question and some of the responses.  I just blew a few brain cells.

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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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I am so very mortified. I just received the e-mail invitation from the American Society of Civil Engineers for the ASCE’s 139th Annual Civil Engineering Conference. And who do they proudly boast is the guest speaker for the Closing General Session Breakfast? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Yes, it’s Mister Ben “Expelled” Stein himself. Mr. Ben “science leads you to killing people” Stein. Mr. “Intelligent Design” himself, who kept a straight-face while comparing President Obama with Adolf Hitler, Juan Peron, and Evita Peron. But then, Mr. Stein likes to compare all sorts of things to Nazi depredations, he’s like Godwin’s Law walking out there outside the Internet.

Prepare yourself for a hilarious morning as he delivers advice with his unique sense of humor, while telling you what you need to know.

You know what, guys? You’re definitely along the hilarious track there as you make us a laughingstock by inviting someone who stands decidedly against science, fact-based thinking to speak at an engineering conference. This goes against everything an engineer is trained for and against our obligations toward society.

Thanks for nothing, bozos.

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