December 1, 2005
By Bronwen Parsons
The career centre for engineering students at the University of Toronto lies deep in the bowels of the Sandford Fleming complex. It's a drab and dreary place, with just a few dog-eared posters up on t...
The career centre for engineering students at the University of Toronto lies deep in the bowels of the Sandford Fleming complex. It’s a drab and dreary place, with just a few dog-eared posters up on the walls. There is no “Situations Vacant” notice board in sight.
Mohan Doss, manager of the centre, chuckles about the room’s lack of visible evidence of employment opportunities. “The students all have laptops,” he explains. “All the job postings are done on-line.”
Of course! Students these days are so digitally connected, they move around permanently wired to their laptops and MP3s. I soon discover, however, that even in this electronic otherworld, jobs and resumes are not flying backwards and forwards between the students and consulting engineers. Over the past summer the University of Toronto’s engineering school had 700 students seeking co-op intern placements, and only 475 positions were available. Only a handful of those were with consulting firms. By November only three consulting engineering firms were using intern students and only one was advertising permanent positions. As for employer information sessions, those listed for engineering students during October and November were by software developers, a marketing consultant, Canadian Tire, General Mills, Labatt Breweries and even the Ontario Teachers Plan.
At the University of British Columbia the engineering co-op program manages to place about 25% of the civil engineering students with consulting engineers, but that amounts to 50 student internships a year out of 1,000 in total. From the other disciplines the program finds spots for only 2%-3% of the students with consulting engineers. The director of the co-op program says “We would love to see more opportunities for our engineering co-op students with consulting engineering companies.”
Students themselves are frustrated that consulting firms don’t show more interest in recruiting them. Paula Claudino is president of the Society of Engineering Students at McMaster University in London, Ontario. She also happens to be a mechanical engineering graduate in her fifth and final year who is adamant she wants to work for consulting engineers in building design. The problem is trying to make contact: “The focus is manufacturing and that line of work. Consulting companies don’t seem to come to campus looking for students, so if you want to work for a consulting company you have to go out and find out who exists, where they are, if they’re hiring. It’s a lot more leg work.”
Raising the profile
Have consulting engineers become too absent from university campuses? Do students even have much idea of what consulting engineering really is? The current chair of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC), Norm Huggins, P.Eng., expressed surprise at what they found on campus in Alberta in his report in this magazine in October-November (p. 15): “We were all somewhat taken aback over the past year by the low awareness of what a consulting engineer is in the minds of graduating engineers. Many of the fourth-year graduating class are looking to manufacturing, construction and government for their careers.”
The association is concerned enough that it has launched a program to raise the profile of consulting engineers as potential employers on university campuses. The initiative was begun last year under then-president, Allen Williams, P.Eng. after he met with the Canadian Council of Deans of Engineering. Williams, who is president of A.D. Williams Engineering, and Rick Prentice, P.Eng., who is another ACEC board member and vice-president of Stantec, developed a presentation to give at the University of Alberta. They were given a time slot in the fourth-year engineering students’ business course, and spoke to a packed auditorium of 400 students on two occasions. The presentation was well received and Prentice says students found it an eye-opener about consulting: “It was a whole new world to them.”
The power point presentation gives the students an idea about all aspects of consulting engineering. Huggins, says, “It basically deals with questions like, What are we? Why are we here? What kind of staff do we hire? As well it covers the business aspects of consulting, such as putting in proposals, keeping track of billings, salary rates, multiplier rates, insurance, etc.” ACEC hopes that provincial consulting engineering associations across Canada will use the presentation as a template, adapt it as necessary, and take it into the various universities. (Consulting Engineers of Ontario has already done campus presentations of its own.)
“If we don’t do this,” says Huggins about the ACEC’s campus promotion, “we believe we’re going to have a shortage of engineers in consulting in less than five years because of the number of old guys like me who are reaching the age of potential retirement.” The staffing crunch facing firms now is at the intermediate management level, he explains. Unless firms start to bring in new interns, the staff shortages could become worse as baby-boomers retire.
McCormick Rankin, transportation and environmental engineers of Mississauga, Ontario, have been busy hiring graduates and building up their staff with an eye on the future. Reno Radolli, P.Eng., executive vice-president at the company, says they are finding it difficult to find intermediate-level engineers: “So we have come to the conclusion we must grow our own.” In their transportation planning department of 35 people, 11 have been young graduates hired in the last five years.
McCormick Rankin likes to use the university co-op internship programs to try out the students: “It’s like having an eight-month interview,” Radolli says.
Across the country in western Canada another firm that specializes in environmental and infrastructure engineering and is even more anxious to hire graduates is EBA Engineering of Edmonton. The company’s president, Paul Ruffell, P.Eng., says they have made a conscious decision to extend their recruitment efforts outside Alberta. All senior staff in the firm are assigned a particular engineering school — usually the person’s alma mater — and every year they take a trip back to the university to meet with professors and students. The company hires both scientists and engineers, usually at the post-graduate level.
Part of EBA’s need is simply their busyness — the volume of work they are handling requires a lot of people. Asked how many graduates he is looking to hire: “As many as I possibly can,” Ruffell replies. “If I could find 20 people I could put 20 people to work today.”
But it’s more than sheer manpower EBA needs. At a deeper level, Ruffell realizes that their ability to hire superior talent goes to the heart of what it means to be a consulting engineer: “My problem is still one of making sure we are getting the brightest and the best. As consultants we’re supposed to be able to advise our clients, so in order to be able to do that we need very bright people. And if the very bright people are being lured into other areas and you’re selecting from a smaller and smaller pool, you have to accept that we must do better. If the client is more knowledgeable than we are, how can we advise them?”
The number of engineering graduates from Canadian universities is rising, (8,315 total in 2000; 10,164 in 2004), but the number of civil engineering graduates — the discipline on which the consulting industry mostly relies — has declined slightly in the last five years (1,128 in 2000; 1,026 in 2004). Also, there is fierce competition for the most talented people. Municipalities and contractors everywhere want the “civils.” In Alberta the oil industry is insatiable, and in Ontario the big employers are automobile manufacturing and nuclear power. According to McMaster student Paula Claudino, the nuclear industry is especially aggressive right now: “They’re hiring everyone and anyone. There’s a huge demand for mechanical, engineering physics, and electrical graduates.”
ost of her fellow mechanical and electrical engineering students are falling into jobs in these other sectors by default. “It’s ease of entry,” Claudino says. “They come to you and virtually offer you a job. That’s very attractive for students, who have no time to be going out to find a company.”
Even those graduates who do start their working lives with consulting firms constantly hear the siren call from the other sectors. They’re easily tempted away by the prospects of a shorter work week, not having to travel to remote and inhospitable sites, and higher salaries.
“So what are we going to learn?” asks Ruffell. “We have to look in the mirror and say, we must do better now. We’ve got to treat our people better, we’ve got to hire better, we’ve got to train better — all those things.”
Consulting engineers may be able to find alternative sources of talent in internationally trained engineers, but it would be a shame if the cream of the home grown crop is allowed to veer off into other career paths through neglect. The ACEC initiative to raise awareness of consulting as a career option is therefore well timed.
“I certainly see the writing on the wall,” Ruffell concludes. “We absolutely have to focus on hiring new graduates and training them.”