From the December 2016 print issue, page. 22.
Illustration: Micheal Eddenden.
For consulting engineering companies it’s critical that the graduates they hire become productive quickly. “After all, we’re not a teaching organization, we’re a business,” said one consulting engineer. Firms need new employees to get up to speed quickly so that they can work on projects and generate billable hours.
Over the past 20 years universities have been tailoring their curricula to try to make engineering students more “design-ready.” Professor Douglas Ruth, P.Eng., Ph.D, of the University of Manitoba is a former dean of engineering and currently an NSERC Chair in Design Engineering. He explains that 20 years ago the universities realized that students weren’t being well equipped for careers in practice, so schools and the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board launched the Capstone Design courses. Today those courses are mandatory. They involve the students in real-life projects and give them experience in working on practical problems in teams. Another initiative of approximately 20 years ago was the introduction of NSERC Design Chairs at the universities.
But perhaps the greatest impact has been the growing number of internship and co-operative programs which allow students to gain extended periods of work experience with companies.
The benefits of co-ops
After the educational changes, how do consulting engineering companies find engineering graduates today? Do the graduates they hire fit the bill? Do they have the right skills? Are they quickly becoming productive members of the team?
An informal and unscientific poll on Canadian Consulting Engineer’s website would suggest the answer is No. Over 80 per cent voted negatively to the question.
But that’s not the opinion of engineers we spoke to. They all speak highly of the co-op programs, for example. Tom Atkins, P.Eng., located in Regina, is vice president of buildings with mega-company Stantec. He says: “Like many companies in the consulting engineering industry, we take on students for either internships or co-op programs. I think these programs are positive, both for the employer and for the student, because they both get to try out one another and the industry. In general, anybody who has participated has been very happy with the results.”
Kent Lane, P.Eng., director of corporate affairs with CBCL, agrees. He says that CBCL takes on around 10 to 12 co-op students a year, which gives them a good window to see how well the person fits in. The company is multi-disciplinary engineering and environmental firm based in Halifax with 300 employees in Atlantic Canada.
At R.V. Anderson & Associates (RVA) based in Toronto, vice-president Vincent Nazareth, P.Eng., says that in addition to interns, they hire between five and 10 new graduates a year for permanent positions. Specializing in environmental and infrastucture engineering, the company has eight offices in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
Confidence and communication
In the past, engineering graduates were often criticized for having poor communication skills, but Nazareth has seen a change. “Going back 20 years I found that many graduates lacked basic writing skills. I was correcting their English in letters and reports. I have found matters have improved considerably. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.”
Lane too has noticed that graduates today are more communicative and “a little more self-confident.” The confident ones “bubble to the top,” he says when it comes to selecting people to take on.
Professor Ruth sees it from both sides: “When we do surveys of students as to what is the most important thing they should learn, it is always this: ‘science basics and math.’ But ask the employers, and it’s always ‘communications, communications, communications.’
“I always ask them, ‘Think back to when you graduated…. How good a communicator were you?’ What most people are looking for is a 22-year old with 20 years of experience. They don’t remember that communication is a skill and it takes years to get good at it.”
“Having said that,” Ruth continues, “when I sit and watch the Capstone project presentations I see young adults with incredible presentation skills, with a mastery of Powerpoint, staging, presence, everything…. But we can do better.”
Bonnie Elliott, senior HR advisor at CBCL, says it would be “fantastic” if students were taught more business courses, especially in how to manage client relations. This is a “huge part of delivering projects in consulting engineering,” she says.
As for computer skills, Elliott and Lane find that graduates today do have exposure at university to the newest 3D design tools, which is important. But even so, once they are working they need to learn the specialized software programs that apply to the particular type of work they’re doing (for example special structural design software, stormwater modelling software, etc.).
Any university engineering training can only go so far. “I think it would be fair to say,” comments Atkins, “that the technical training of an engineer in the consulting industry is quite specific to the area of the consulting business they go into. [Whereas] in large part the schools are teaching fundamentals that are not necessarily directly applicable to what the consultants are doing.”
He continues: “What graduates do come out with is basic engineering, basic problem solving skills. It’s the problem solving skills that are paramount in the workplace.”
People who can think
For Nazareth too basic problem solving skills are the most important: “You can teach anyone, anything at any time. But if you don’t have an individual who can think, who has a logical process in their thinking, you’re stuck.”
“The graduates we have hired in the past seven to 10 years have been extremely well rounded,” Nazareth continues. “They have been able to step into the roles that we’ve asked them to do. And as far as their technical skills are concerned, what they haven’t had, they have picked up quickly.”
The coveted graduate is also one who can fit into a company’s “culture.” If the atmosphere in the office is easy-going and sociable, then the graduate must feel comfortable in that kind of world.
Asked if RVA has policies on hiring women or visible minorities, Nazareth says, “No. We don’t believe in quotas. We hire people on the basis of their qualifications. It doesn’t matter who they are. We’re looking for their skills in our screening process.” One year, for example, five out of seven people they shortlisted for internships were women. The company also has a good track record of hiring engineers from outside Canada — including himself: “If you come here it’s like the United Nations,” he says laughing.
Consulting engineering firms are looking for the “best of the best” among the graduates, but they’re in fierce competition with other sectors such as manufacturing and government. Only five per cent of all engineering graduates go into consulting engineering.
As for the graduates who are hired and don’t work out, Atkins says it’s usually because they don’t understand the nature of the consulting business and come with unreal expectations. “It’s a fairly demanding industry,” he says. “It’s not always 9 to 5. [Also] I think some underestimate the amount of job-specific learning that they’re going to have to do.”
Professor Ruth’s advice is that consulting firms should become more involved with the universities, teaching courses on practice issues like liability, helping in Capstone design courses, and possibly sponsoring more engineer-in-residence programs.
If students can have more occasions to interact first-hand with consulting engineers, then surely more of them will realize that it’s a great industry in which to work.cce