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ReEngineering the Engineer: Making Way for the Future

Douglas Fitzpatrick on December 11, 2017 - in Articles, Column

Like many others, my firm had a very busy 2017. We were fortunate to pick up a couple new clients at the beginning of the year, and that led to additional projects and a workload that caught us a little by surprise. We didn’t realize the pent-up demand for construction, because consulting engineers tend to be a bit removed from much of the preliminary work that happens before a developer or owner decides to move forward with a project.

We’ve also been numbed by the last eight years of recession and the repeated “head fakes” we’ve had to endure. Most of us have become reluctant to hire new talent for fear of our workload disappearing overnight and then having to lay off staff. Most of my business colleagues decided to tough it out, as did we, and work some overtime to get the work done rather than hiring. But here we are toward the end of the year, and there’s little sign of our workload letting up, and our staff is starting to look tired.

Time to Get Help

Earlier this summer, we decided to “bite the bullet” and start looking for some help. Just like everyone else, we were looking for that 5- to 10-year-experience person who is willing to relocate and can be productive from day one. To date, no one fits the bill—we’ve seen some resumes, but nothing remotely close to our needs. There are plenty of “job hoppers,” plenty who haven’t done any commercial structural design work and plenty who “manage.” Perhaps everyone is so busy that they aren’t interested in looking for a new job, but a discussion with a friend locked in on a likely cause.

The economy tanked in 2009 and so did engineering jobs. We surmised that anyone who was planning to go into engineering bailed and decided to change careers into a field that was hiring. And they kept bailing the longer the recession lasted. Fast forward eight years, and we’re staring at a void in the five- to 10-year-experience range.

What to Do?

We decided to go into “building” mode, taking the long-term approach. We started looking at younger engineers. Although they might not have much experience, they’re eager to work and typically don’t have bad habits that need to be undone. Some of them were right out of school; some had been working elsewhere but weren’t happy there. Of course, the “unhappy” part was a topic of discussion during the interview to make sure there wasn’t some underlying issue that would cause them to be unhappy here, too. Two interviews stuck out to me:

The first was a registered engineer who had a fair amount of experience, albeit in the related field of civil engineering. This candidate was well versed in construction of underground structures but had been laid off in 2013; one of the last to go at their firm. There were two subsequent stints at structural engineering firms.

The candidate left the first very small firm because it was virtually impossible to talk with the principal in charge. There was no office, everyone worked remotely, and the principal was keeping some rather odd hours, so it was difficult to get answers and direction. The second firm was equally challenging. There wasn’t a lot of interoffice communication. Everyone was expected to solve their own problems, in their own cubicle, on their own. Both situations seemed strange to me.

The second candidate’s situation was more disturbing. Their first job included about two years doing some forensic work, but it wasn’t something this engineer wanted as a career. Their second job was working for a structural engineering firm, but they left after just six months. Apparently, the second firm was looking for a registered engineer, but decided to take this young engineer anyway. The engineer was basically told to read the Code and do the work. The project that was assigned was messy and generally over the head of someone with that amount of experience.

At one point, the manager was approached because this engineer didn’t understand something in the Code. The engineer was told to “read it again” and was dismissed. The engineer rebutted, saying they had already read it several times and still didn’t understand it; that was why they were in the manager’s office. Again, dismissed without an answer. I asked the engineer if they thought the manager knew the answer. “Probably not” was the response.

Be a Better Manager

Knowing the answer isn’t the issue here. Although the Code is printed in black and white, there are certainly some areas that are gray; some that are really gray if you end up in the weeds. We routinely have discussions in our office about Code requirements. Not knowing is not the problem.

What was disturbing to me was the blatant disregard for this young engineer’s education. We’ve all been there, being the recent graduate engineer. We got to where we are today because someone (and mostly likely many people) took the time to help us understand and learn. That’s the only way our profession can grow.

We all have to be willing to share our knowledge with the younger engineers. The internet is OK for some things, but it falls short of capturing the experience of senior engineers. Be the manager who shares your knowledge with younger engineers. Our profession will be better for it.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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