Canadian Consulting Engineer

Essential Training

December 1, 2011
By By John Boyd, P.Eng. Design Firm Seminars

Consulting engineering is a demanding business that requires not only high technical competence, but also advanced skills in business and communications. Engineering training at the university undergraduate level has to concentrate on the...

Consulting engineering is a demanding business that requires not only high technical competence, but also advanced skills in business and communications. Engineering training at the university undergraduate level has to concentrate on the technical side to squeeze the necessary components of the curriculum into an already heavy course load. As a result, graduate engineers are faced with the need to continue their education once they enter the workforce in order not only to keep up with technical advances, but also to supplement their technical skills with all the other requirements of the business.

Good companies in consulting engineering recognize the need to complement technical staff skills and so they encourage their people to broaden their capabilities. The logic is not hard to understand — mistakes in the business aspects of consulting engineering occur more frequently than in the technical areas and every year cost the industry millions of dollars.

Sometimes the mistakes are obvious: for example, the need for rework brought about by poor project management. Others are more subtle but just as damaging. They include bad presentations that confuse clients or stakeholder groups; the poor handling of client relations that results in the loss of future contracts; acceptance of onerous clauses in contracts that shift inappropriate responsibilities onto the shoulders of the consultant, to mention but a few examples.

Training comes at a price whether internally or externally sourced. In-house solutions usually mean expensive overhead time spent on developing curricula. External solutions involve direct expenditures for courses that may not be focused on materials relevant to the needs of the industry. More importantly, either approach takes the professional away from work and at least in the short term can interfere with day-to-day project communications. Nevertheless, focused training is effective in moving the organization and its staff to the next level of development.

In many firms training is reactive, based on a crisis brought about by a particular problem. For a short period training is then used to ensure that staff members understand the lessons learned. But very quickly the press of business interferes, and soon the staff slide back into their old ways.

Some firms rely on the close interaction between experienced staff and newcomers to transfer the necessary knowledge, ignoring the fact that some senior staff are much better at mentoring than others. As a result, the dissemination of knowledge is spotty at best.

The only effective solution to these problems is to turn training into a regular aspect of company policy and to plan systematically for the necessary knowledge transfer as an aspect of staff career development. Experience has shown that recent graduates have a strong preference to join firms that undertake to improve their employees’ skills. Existing staff members enjoy being part of a working environment that defines expected behaviour and helps them perform to expectations. Finally, clients prefer to work with companies with well trained staff.

Adopting a systematic policy towards training provides a number of advantages:

  • Training becomes a budget item; it has specific performance improvements as targets measurable in cost benefit terms.
  • Training becomes accepted as a way for proper performance objectives to be demonstrated to staff. At the same time, tools are provided to help them achieve management performance goals.
  • Training curricula are developed with the real needs of the business in mind. The courses also become part of a knowledge management process that delivers the necessary understanding at the right time to the right participants.
  • The fact that your company considers training so important becomes widely known in the industry, with the effect of improving your client base, your recruiting, and your retention of staff.

It is a win-win solution for everybody, staff and management alike. cce

 John Boyd, P.Eng. is one of three senior Canadian engineering executives who recently formed Design Firm Seminars (DFS) to address the need for industry-relevant training in Canada at all levels of career development. The principals of DFS have over 90 years of consulting engineering experience in firms large and small. This article was written with significant input from Ben Novak, P.Eng., also of DFS.


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