Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engineers face increasing expectations from public clients

June 24, 2014
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

At the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC/AFIC) Summit and Annual Meeting held in Winnipeg, June 19-21,  delegates thrashed out the issues that are facing consulting engineers today.

At the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC/AFIC) Summit and Annual Meeting held in Winnipeg, June 19-21,  delegates thrashed out the issues that are facing consulting engineers today.

About 20 people took part in the delegate roundtable that focused on “Opportunities and Challenges in Public Markets,” on June 19. About half of these were young professionals, bringing a fresh perspective. Paul Ruffell, of Tetra Tech EBA and the ACEC board member for Alberta, led the discussion. Two other delegate panels were held simultaneously on private sector and international opportunities.

Consulting engineers’ relations with clients emerged as a dominant concern at the public sector roundtable. It was agreed that clients’ expectations are changing and that shifting demographics are adding to the pressure.

Participants agreed that many public sector clients such as municipalities are becoming much more rigid in their expectations of consultants, with some municipalities considering having zero tolerance for project overruns or errors. And public clients don’t feel obliged to take on any risks related to their projects and instead are pushing liability onto their consultants, often unreasonably so.

Today the public and the media are much more aware of the infrastructure deficit. This was felt to be a good thing, but people at the table noted that it also means projects are more in the public eye and under scrutiny than in past decades.

The relationship of consultants with clients has become distant because of the restrictions on lobbying public officials that have been instituted by many cities and governments recent years. As a result the  client and the consulting engineer  have to operate at arm’s length. You can’t even buy someone a coffee, noted one participant, which means that it’s difficult to build relationships. Without relationships, consultants are being selected more on the price of their fees.

Another change is due to the retirement of baby boomers, which is leaving a “big gap” inside municipalities (and consulting engineering firms). As a result, younger people with little experience are being put in charge of large six and seven figure projects. These young managers tend to rely on setting up legal and financial controls to try to manage projects rather than trusting the consultants. And it means decisions  sometimes take a long time to come down the pipeline. “You can get direction from one person, and then after they have found a chance to speak to a senior person, they change their minds,” said a young professional from Manitoba. Or you are “waiting, waiting, waiting,” for a decision, she said.

On the other hand, clients demand answers immediately. At a panel on June 20, this feeling was echoed when a young professional mentioned that sometimes you will receive an e-mail, a phone call, and then a cell phone notification within a few minutes from the same client who has a question.

A recurring theme at the panel and at several of the conference sessions was that consultants are increasingly working directly for contractors, which is due to the increase in design-build and P3 projects. There are some tensions in these kinds of situations. For example, it was said that consultants working for contractors lack direct contact with the facility owners and so don’t easily know what the client’s long term needs are.

A young professional at the roundtable felt that because engineers are now being more closely identified with contractors, clients are expecting the engineers to be more than designers and to be experts in constructability as well.

Randy McGee of Defence Construction Canada suggested that working more closely with contractors is a good idea. He urged the young professionals to be open to working closely with contractors, as “they know a lot.”

However, half-humorously, the participants at the roundtable agreed that engineers can find themselves a little uncomfortable at meetings with contractors, because “they like to shout,” whereas engineers are more reserved.


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