Beyond the Solitudes: The View From Quebec
Johanne Desrochers has been with the Association of Consulting Engineers of Quebec/l'Association des ingnieurs-conseils du Qubec for 21 years, and is now its president and chief executive officer. S...
Johanne Desrochers has been with the Association of Consulting Engineers of Quebec/l’Association des ingnieurs-conseils du Qubec for 21 years, and is now its president and chief executive officer. She was interviewed in late October by Canadian Consulting Engineer.
Q. What are the particular challenges that Quebec consulting engineering firms face today?
Like elsewhere, the shortage of engineers and the fact that many of the consulting engineers’ experts and the clients’ engineers will be leaving on retirement pose a real challenge. This is so at a time when the government announces a huge investment in infrastructure rehabilitation, and when the needs in energy, mining and other projects are up.
So staff replacement is a big challenge since we know that not enough young students, men and women, have chosen to go into engineering studies in the past decade. Of course immigrants can be part of the solution, but since there is a shortage of engineers around the world, it cannot be the only solution. It means we must try to win the interest of the young children and the adolescents, girls and boys, to go into the science and engineering field.
While the engineering firms are going to be very busy for many years to come, the quality of work remains a challenge, especially when the demand is very high. The firms then have to be even more careful in the delivery of their services. They should refuse mandates when the client’s request is not reasonable in terms of budget and time.
Q. Do you think Quebec consulting engineers have to operate in a different business environment in any way compared to in the rest of the country? For example, there seem to be some very large clients, such as Hydro Quebec and Alcan. Or as a client, does the Quebec government pose any challenges?
You are right. Many large clients did represent an opportunity for Quebec firms to grow and develop expertise that they now export around the world.
It is also true that a large proportion of the clients in Quebec are still from the public sector compared to some provinces. More and more, though, we see private clients becoming a major contributor to firm revenues. About 40% of firms’ revenues currently come from the private sector.
In terms of contractual requirements, we must say that the government of Qubec is usually what we call a good, demanding and intelligent client. The rules adopted by the Treasury Board for selecting professionals are comparable to what Canada’s Infraguide recommends. It means that the transport department and the health sector follow the best practice for selecting a consulting engineer, namely, QBS [qualifications-based selection], followed by a fee negotiation based on an adopted fee schedule.
Q. Is there much competition between Quebec consulting engineering firms? Are there many small firms, mid-size firms, large firms? What size of firm constitutes the majority of your members?
Yes, there is a lot of competition between the firms as the economic activity is growing and as the mandates get bigger.
In terms of firm size, the picture has changed a lot in the last 20 years. In fact, 20 years ago we had something like 260 firms (head offices), while today we have 70 firms as members. At the same time we had 6,500 employees 20 years ago and today the members employ over 16,000 people just in Quebec. This is a real consolidation of the industry.
Today, the firms who have more than 1,000 employees make up 9% of the association’s membership. But firms with less than 50 employees still represent more than half our members — 52%. This trend confirms what a study showed us 15 years ago, that the mid-size companies would have a tendency to disappear.
Q. Do you see Quebec consulting engineers branching out of Quebec, or mostly confining themselves to doing work in the province?
Most of the members concentrate in Quebec, but we have started to see some of the larger firms branching out into the rest of Canada, which is quite new. Even though our firms do export a lot and have branches in many countries, they were not exporting to the rest of Canada, except for a very few. But it is changing, which is great.
Q. Do you think the language difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada still poses a challenge to Quebec consulting engineers in any way?
Of course it does, but more and more people have learned English and are interested in going west. At the same time, our firms have been on the international market for a while so they are known there and able to attract English speaking people if necessary.
On the other hand it is still a challenge for a firm from outside Quebec to do business in the province unless it is done in French, especially work for the public sector.
Q. ACEC/l’AICC has changed its name to the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies/l’Association des firmes d’ingnierie du Canada. It no longer includes the term “Consulting.” Will you be putting this question to the vote of your member firms? Do you think they will want to keep the “ingnieur-conseil” name?
It is too early to answer that question since it has not gone to the AICQ board yet, but it will certainly be a matter for some discussion this year. When a decision has to be taken, it will be put to the vote of the members.
Q. The collapse of the Laval overpass in 2006 was a major event in Quebec. What do you think will be the long-term impact of this tragedy and the subsequent Johnson Commission report that was just released?
The report is an occasion for all the stakeholders to question the way they do projects, and consulting engineers are among them. This situation must be viewed as an opportunity to make sure we do things the right way.
At the association we will be issuing a response to the Johnson report and the announcements that were made by the Ministry of Transport in the coming weeks.