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ReEngineering the Engineer: Tips to Survive While Professionally Underwater

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 30, 2022 - in Articles, Column

My brother, sister and I spent a lot of time at the beach when we were younger. We lived about 5 miles from the east coast of New Jersey, so it was very convenient. Although there were several public beaches in the area—Sandy Hook, Long Branch and Asbury Park—there was also a string of private beach clubs sandwiched between those. For whatever reason, we belonged to one of the private clubs.

Sink or Swim

I have a lot of fond memories from that time, but my earliest memory from the beach probably was the most traumatic. I had spent a lot of time in the shallow end of the pool learning to swim, but it was where I could always touch bottom. When I reached the appropriate age to learn how to really swim, my parents signed me up for swim lessons.

Like all pools, there was a shallow end for the beginners and a deep end where the diving board was located. The lesson started in the middle of the pool where it was perhaps 5 feet deep, clearly over my head. Some of the other kids were already there when we arrived and were doing the first task: jump in, touch the bottom, then push off to get back up to the surface. Pretty simple, right?

I jumped right in, but it became exceedingly apparent I didn’t know how to tread water. There was an awful lot of flailing and splashing water. I recall being half underwater, half above, gasping for air, and the only thing I saw was my mom in her white beach coverup with the huge sunflower on it (1960’s style) reaching to yank me out.

Staying Afloat … Barely

This last year and a half felt an awful lot like that for me and my firm. We’ve all had more than our share of work to do, and there are many times when we felt overwhelmed and underwater with the unrelenting schedule demands. And it appears there will be plenty more of those struggles to come. There isn’t a single design team partner we work with that isn’t struggling with the same issues.

While we don’t have mom at the edge of the pool to give us a helping hand, I think we’re better prepared to adapt to this new workload. We’ve had plenty of schooling, and if you’re registered, you’ve also had plenty of experience. We haven’t just been practicing in the shallow end of the pool.

It’s easy to think you should just turn down new work to help manage the workload. In our case, however, we generally aren’t getting new clients right now. Our existing clients are bringing us most of the workload, and it’s very difficult to tell them “no.” Marketing 101 says to stay in front of your clients as much as possible. Turning away work gives them a chance to go somewhere else; that’s rarely a good thing.

We also have tried pushing back on schedules. That seems to help some, but we don’t get our way very often. You still have to compromise. Clients and owners all have their agendas as well: financing deadlines, opening-day constraints, etc. We’ve had some success negotiating longer design times, but it’s not enough to relieve the schedule crunches completely. So we figure out ways to be more efficient with our time and staff.

All Hands On Deck

I’ve always been a fan of letting our engineers learn whatever structural system they want. Knowledge is a good thing, and things you learn from one structural system often inform learning in other systems. But that knowledge comes with a price: it takes more time to learn the intricacies of an unfamiliar system. While there’s a short-term cost of learning something new, however, the long-term benefit clearly outweighs the initial cost … unless you’re really busy.

To that end, we’ve temporarily suspended the idea of letting folks work on “new” things. We’re putting our engineers on projects they know how to design quickly. Are we abandoning the notion of learning new things? Of course not. Or “cubby-holing” folks into things they already know? No. But we’re in survival mode right now, and getting the most efficiency out of our people is the priority.

For those of you new to engineering and business cycles, this won’t last forever. There will be a reckoning at some point, and we’ll be holding the other end of the stick.

The current pace of deadlines and schedules is very difficult, but we can only control the things we can control. We need to keep the bigger picture in mind, and maintaining client relationships is a finicky thing. Do the best you can to help your firms. I know we all have outside commitments, but struggling through the workload crisis is important, too. 

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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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