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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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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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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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As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts this week, I’ve been reflecting on career matters, including what I’ve changed in the last year and a half.

First, I read up on job search and career management, and the difference between the two (this is the theme of the week). I thought a lot about what I was looking for, and I formulated to myself what kind of job I wanted: “To find a job where I can continue to not only make an adequate wage for my efforts and qualifications, but also feel proud of and challenged by my work, and team up with a group of people I can respect.”

I greatly improved my resume’s style. I brushed up my skills and understanding of interviewing, networking (a word I dislike), career planning, project management, etc. I tried to make my online presence more coherent and to adopt an organized approach to contact management. I learned to wring more out of Google Calendar, Gmail, Outlook, Jibber Jobber, Box.net, and other tools that help me keep track of “people” information.

I got involved in local professional associations and I try to stay abreast of events in my community, my profession, and the world. I draw connections and I look for opportunities. Most of all, I’m very conscious of how I address people, what kind of impression I leave, and how I listen to them (that’s not new, just more conscious).

My new employer also provided training. The company uses a project management system base on the PSMJ training, and sends all new project managers to take the PSMJ A/E/C Bootcamp (that’s architects/engineers/contractors for non-jargon speakers.) There I learned a lot of interesting things which I plan to discuss tomorrow.

The change that is most embarrassing to confess: I improved my dress code at work. It’s so stupid to say, but I had reached the point when I was not even trying. Part of the reason was that it didn’t seem to make any difference in my work. A larger part was my bus commute in rainy Seattle and the long walk up along steep, windy hills to the bus stop. It seems that no matter how much I tried, I always reached the office wrinkled, rumpled, and my hair in disarray, so why bother?

Nowadays I’ve expanded my wardrobe a little bit and use accessories more. It takes actually surprisingly little to dress well (leaving aside the problem of long bus commutes for now). I have a few jackets and slacks in solid, “safe” colours (blue, ivory, black, gray, green, camel, brown) that I can mix and match, a few shirts and sweaters in solid colours that can be coordinated with these combinations, a few pairs of “good” jeans, and a few nice white shirts (alas, I hate ironing.) I vary the combinations and add yet more variety by matching with scarves and jewelry. It’s silly, but dressing up seems to improve how people see you at work.

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I’m not one of those people that life doesn’t throw anything at you which you can’t handle, or that everything happens for a reason. I think that’s the kind of thing we say to other people to make them and ourselves feel better, but in reality things just happen without predetermination. History unfolds as we make it, minute by minute and decision by decision. Sometimes people are handed more hardship than they can handle at that point, and they need help. And sometimes they don’t get this help, and they sink.

We can recover from failure. It’s not fun, and we are probably changed forever, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have another start. We take detours, we stumble, we double back, we fall and get up. If we have vision, luck, or help, and preferably all three, we can have another go and create something that is of lasting value to ourselves.

I also believe that we tend to overlook opportunities around us. One thing I’m very good at, for whatever mysterious reason, is looking at a situation and thinking: What are the opportunities here? How can we turn this problem into a solution? Is this a constraint or a resource? I’ve trained myself to think this way, and it’s tremendously useful. Not every problem can be turned around with this sort of aikido, but many become much more manageable.

Moreover, that approach fosters a mental attitude of receptivity, of looking for gems in the dirt. The dirt is still there, but unless you’re looking for them you will rarely just stumble upon the gems. I freely admit that I’m a very lucky person by any standard; but I believe my greatest luck is having the capacity to look for and notice this good fortune when it is nearby.

This is not some sort of “you make your own luck”, “The Secret” kind of positive thinking clap-trap that provides a pat on the back to the fortunate and a boot to the head to those down on their luck. I’m just suggesting that all else being equal, we have every advantage in looking for the hidden opportunities rather than waiting for Lady Luck.

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Yesterday I mentioned that I have noticed a cycle in my career consisting of periods of intense, feverish learning and growth alternating with slower, less focused periods. I also mentioned that my latest period of rapid growth started with my layoff in May 2008. Corollary: that must mean I was in a slow-down period when I was laid off, and that is likely part of the reason I was indeed selected for layoff.

It’s true! I was at my previous job for nine years, and they were good ones; but for the last few years my growth had slowed down and projects had become less interesting. There all sorts of reasons for this, and maybe I’ll discuss them in detail in a future post. The key point I’m getting to, though, is that I knew this but I kept hoping things would change on their own: a new exciting project would come along, the economy would pick up (little did I know!), some change would happen in the company that would mean a new opening for me, etc.

I was not planning for my career, I was hoping my job would improve. I had had good years at that company, I was comfortable, I liked my co-workers and my clients, I didn’ want to leave. For reasons I’ll discuss another day, I didn’t really feel I could develop much more, but I didn’t wish to look elsewhere. I’m sure that the “what have you done for me lately” factor played a major role when the company had to lay off senior personnel to hire cheaper, just-graduated professionals. I was still their most versatile employee and I had met all my annual goals, including ones that were imposed, but I hadn’t done anything new.

When I was laid off, I immediately started absorbing information to optimize my job search; I’ve published some highlights of that information before. But as I have said elsewhere, I wanted to get more out of the effort than just a new desk from which to work. I had never before reflected on the difference between job search and career management.

When I found myself hitting a plateau, professionally, I should have started looking for the next challenge. In previous cycles, I floundered around until I found another job, I went back to school to do a master’s degree, etc. But this last time, I was too comfortable; I ended up diverting my energies to non-profit organizations, hobbies, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot there which I have since applied in my career; but it was haphazard, unplanned, and it could have resulted in a stalled career.

There’s nothing wrong with getting growth in personal pursuits rather than in a day job. For example, I learned interpersonal, leadership, organizational, and even sales skills in these side pursuits. But I’m coming to realize that it still makes sense to look at the big picture and ask myself how it all fits together. Because sooner or later, the next dip in my job productivity and interest will arrive, and I can either have a plan ready to fill this new gap or I can drift along, waiting for opportunity to happen all by itself. Which one seems more efficient?

As I was mentioning yesterday, if my current upsurge in learning and growth follows previous patterns, I will find myself slowing down around mid-2011. That means that around that time, I will have mastered the skills necessary to do my current job, I will be getting quite comfortable, and I won’t feel as challenged. It will likely be a quite enjoyable position to be in, but one which offers the temptation of complacency.

So I’m trying to plan for the next challenge after that. Since the company I now work for is considerably larger and more clearly structured than my previous one, there are several different possible paths so I can reasonably hope to grow with the company (and I do!). However, if for some reason this doesn’t work out, I will already be tackling the next set of competences I need in order to keep my mind and my heart engaged.

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