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More international competition and skilled staff shortages a concern for consulting engineers

CEOs and principals of consulting engineering companies across the country shared their thoughts and concerns at three special roundtables held at the ACEC/AFIC Summit in Prince Edward Island last week.


CEOs and principals of consulting engineering companies across the country shared their thoughts and concerns at three special roundtables held at the ACEC/AFIC Summit in Prince Edward Island last week.

First thing on Friday, June 22, a representative of each of three CEO and principal roundtables reported on their discussions the day before.

From the panel that discussed “Opportunities from Public Investment,” Francois Plourde of CIMA+ reported. He said that one concern was the New West Partnership Trade Agreement which “seems to be moving east quickly.” The NWPTA currently involves B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, and is felt to be problematic in its present form because it can lead to public clients hiring engineering companies based on which company asks the lowest fees.

The panel was also concerned about a possible European free trade agreement that would mean more international competition from large foreign companies.

The difficulty of finding staff with 10 to 20 years’ experience was another concern expressed by this panel. Hiring immigrant engineers is one solution put forward, but Plourdes noted that clients sometimes don’t recognize foreign credentials.

The panel had also discussed the huge resource developments in Canada’s north, saying that while these promised large work opportunities, engineering companies could be challenged to mobilize staff to move up to those areas.

The panel had talked about whether it was a good idea to allow telecommuting rather than having staff waste two to three hours travelling to and from the office. However they “didn’t come to any conclusions.”

Jason Mewis of ENGCOMP in Saskatchewan spoke on behalf of the roundtable for “Opportunities from Private Investment.” Mewis is the chair-elect of ACEC-Canada.

This panel had also agreed that staffing was a problem in that it was difficult to find experienced technical leaders.

They discussed finding ways to increase staff productivity and agreed that they must adopt BIM. They also talked about contracts and how companies are spending many hours poring over the legal fine points of contracts. Even though ACEC has some good standard contracts, Mewis said the problem is, “We have to get clients to agree to them.”

Chris Newcomb of McElhanney in Vancouver reported on behalf of the roundtable on “International Opportunities.” Newcomb is chair of ACEC’s International Committee and on the executive committee of FIDIC, the international federation of consulting engineers.

Newcomb said they had ended on a positive note thanks to Bruce Bodden of MMM Group who had emphasized what a joy it could be for consulting engineers to do international work, and how it creates a sense of pride and fulfilment that engineers can make a difference in the development world. The panelists had agreed that travelling and working in different cultures in different countries was a life-changing experience.

Newcomb noted that Canadian consulting engineers consistently ranked fourth or fifth in the world in exporting engineering services, and that “the Canadian brand is very strong.”

Challenges exist, however, in particular because CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) is no longer sponsoring “bricks and mortar” infrastructure projects. McElhanney said ACEC’s international committee had tried to lobby CIDA on this policy, but with a “singular” lack of success.

This panel noted that Canada has few large construction companies that export their services; if there were more of these exporting construction companies, then small engineering companies in Canada might be able to gain access to export markets on their coattails.

The panel was also concerned about issues such as how to maintain ethical practices and avoid corruption in overseas markets.

They noted that overall international work can present companies with a lot of risks, but that markets like China and India will also present huge opportunities.