Conversation: The next generation of business leadersBusiness & Professional Engineering ACEC-Canada business management consulting engineers Design Firm Seminars DFS Engineering UNB University of New Brunswick young professionals
Today's firms will rely on tomorrow's managers.
Andrew Steeves, P.Eng., member of Canadian Consulting Engineer’s editorial advisory board (EAB) and past-chair of ACEC-Canada, has seen a need for the industry’s young professionals (YPs) to expand upon their engineering skills with business management acumen, so they can take on leading roles for both new and existing firms. As engineer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), he is particularly aware of opportunities to build upon a post-secondary education.
What opportunities do you see for YPs to thrive in today’s industry?
I worked for more than 30 years at an employee-owned firm, ADI, and we shared numbers that showed how we made or lost money. You need to know your break-even point.
A relatively small firm, with 15 or so people, can do very well in this industry—better than a 50- to 100-person firm with higher overhead costs. And there are many niches, like corrosion or loss prevention, where a specialized firm can work with the big guys.
What do you make of how mergers and acquisitions (M&A) have reduced the number of consulting engineering firms across Canada?
The trend is driven by small firms that were run well in the past, but now their owner is looking to sell—and since the employees are not aware of or privy to the firm’s business performance, they are not willing to invest in it. A larger firm, on the other hand, may have access to the numbers and the expertise to assess the opportunity.
A lot of today’s firms date back to shortly after the Second World War, when engineers returning to Canada could start and run a business based mainly on their own confidence—but now there is increased responsibility to conduct assessments and complete reports. And as engineers have become more specialized in their technical expertise, they have not necessarily built up their entrepreneurial expertise, as they have wanted to design, rather than manage design.
There’s a lot of interest in adding those non-technical social and business skills, such as communication, teamwork, career planning, project management, working with clients, managing contracts, mentoring staff and, overall, running a profitable business.
“There’s a lot of interest in adding non-technical social and business skills”
How are you developing and delivering such education?
I’m one of the founding partners in Design Firm Seminars (DFS), along with John Boyd and Ben Novak. We have planned, created and delivered programs to improve the business skills of consulting engineers, from in-house seminars to annual group teaching programs.
Collaborating with ACEC-Canada, we have most recently developed the ACEC Certificate in Management Essentials. Launching in January 2021, it involves a series of four two-hour virtual learning sessions, which participants can access live or recorded.
After these sessions, they will be challenged to demonstrate their understanding of business management concepts by working online with fellow participants to answer a specially formulated case study. Then they will have the opportunity to present their conclusions to a panel of ACEC board directors and past chairs.
For successful completion of the group case study, ACEC will issue a certification of completion. The program will assist in professional development unit (PDU) accreditations.
In the meantime, we also need more research into professional engineering firms and how they can best operate, especially the employee-owned ones, which seem more willing and able to try new things.
This column originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.