Canadian Consulting Engineer

Hello, Goodbye

June 1, 2006
By Nerys Parry

As a former project manager for the federal government, I noticed a disturbing trend. One day, my consultant would be Frances, the next it would be Sandra. One month later another 27 year-old would be...

As a former project manager for the federal government, I noticed a disturbing trend. One day, my consultant would be Frances, the next it would be Sandra. One month later another 27 year-old would be handling my project. A consultant who was working for me would suddenly disappear, only to reappear after a few weeks reincarnated as an employee of another firm, like one of those doppelganger visions. It was getting hard to keep my business cards straight, even harder to continually debrief new contracted staff on the policies and procedures of our department.

Brian Stoneman, an environmental analyst at Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), agrees that the revolving door of people working for consulting firms can make it difficult: “The main problem is when you need to get something historical,” Stoneman says. “There’s a loss of time. You have to retrain new project managers and staff, make sure they have the right perspective and are approaching [the project] the right way.”

To make things easier for government clients, Stoneman’s advice is that consulting firms should “aim for a good transition period. Give [new staff] enough time to understand the intricacies of a project.”

I call up one of the consulting firms I used to work with and ask an associate there [who prefers to remain anonymous] why he thinks so many consulting firms are having such a hard time keeping their staff.

“There needs to be a shift in mentality,” he tells me. “The old philosophy was work, work, work. Family life was secondary. People go through their first divorce, and then their second. Those coming in have seen the results and they say that’s not the model I want to follow.”

We talk about the old days in consulting. Both of us worked in the 1990s when jobs were scarce and you took what you got. There was the 60 to 80 hour work week. The long nights. The low pay.

“Now we’re seeing higher starting salaries,” he says, “And new recruits are asking about benefits and those kinds of questions. We just don’t see the go-getters that we did 10 years ago.”

The new buzz: work-life balance

Is it just a generation gap, I wonder?

Not so, according to a recent report on “Work-Life Balance in the Workplace: Where Are We?” by Canadians Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins.1 Despite the increased awareness of the need for work-life balance during the 1990s, the researchers found that “all … aspects of work-life conflict … have increased, and no demographic appears to have been left unscathed.”

The statistics are not good. According to one study, more than 40% of U.S. and Canadian employees are highly dissatisfied with their current work experience.2 With the impending labour shortage in Canada this inevitably means — you guessed it — high turnover rates.

In February 2006 Canada’s unemployment rate was still at its 30-year low of less than 7%.3 High employment means a boom to the economy, yes, and also lots of “greener grass” out there, if anyone’s looking. And they are.

In a recent survey by Deloitte and Touche,4 almost three-quarters of Canadian companies polled list “attraction and retention of talent” as the number one issue they faced. Already 86% of these companies had or expected to have staff shortages in their salaried staff, and about 66% also complained of hourly-paid staff shortages.

The revolving door swings both ways

The consultant staff turnover wasn’t the only turnover affecting my projects at the federal government. All around me, bureaucratic colleagues were hopping from job to job, climbing the Jacob’s ladder of government hierarchy at a dizzying pace. On one two-year project I went through three different technical advisors, two different client representatives, and at least three different contracting advisors (on a single contract). Don’t even ask me how many “acting” bureaucrats I had to deal with because of French training.

Despite the government being an employer of choice, almost every government manager I’ve met laments the difficulty of hiring competent staff. They cite the long time frames needed for public postings, the complex scoring methods and the increasing language requirements as impediments to attracting quality staff. All these restrictions ultimately mean delays, which also mean little time for the transfer of information. New federal project managers may have little or no history of working on projects or of how government contracting works. The situation not only frustrates the consultants, but also often increases the project costs and delay times.

Just Deal With It

“You know staff changes are going to happen, but you just don’t know when,” says Stoneman. Yet he believes that the turnover in consultants has also done the government some good. “It forces you to set up your contract better, make sure there’s less room for interpretation.”

Government lawyers are careful to ensure that contracts they write will protect the Crown against delays or cost increases caused by consultant staff turnover, as well as to prevent the old “bait-and-switch” when the consultant hired replaces an individual on its team by another person who does not have the equivalent qualifications or experiences.

But what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander. On one of my projects, both the consultant’s project manager and the technician had to be replaced part-way through the contract. Because this was a fixed rate contract, with a single monthly fee, the company had to go “into the hole” to train up new staff on that project. For professional employees the direct cost of employee attrition is estimated at approximately 18 months of their salary.5

The competition is tough

Based in Ottawa, my friend in the consulting firm tells me that his firm’s main competition for staff is with government jobs, not just federal but municipal too. “It’s difficult to compete with the public sector — paid overtime, vacation, a shorter work week — even if the pay is lower, it’s the quality of life.”

But that old work-life-balance isn’t the only thing causing consultants to flee to the feds in droves; there’s also the appeal of working for the greater good.

According to the Ottawa Citizen’s Dierdre McMurdy: “A growing number of the best and brightest, a group notoriously difficult to recruit and retain in the private sector, are flocking to government for professional and personal fulfillment. At a time when the corporate commoditization of talent is the norm, meaning trumps money.”6

You can expect the competition to get worse. Treasury Board estimates that over the next 10 years, as many as 7,000 to 9,000 federal public servants will retire every year, which will create “job opportunities unheard of since the 1970s.”7

I ask another consultant if he thinks the industry is capable of the change required to compete.

He doesn’t have an answer.

But he does ask me to keep him in mind should any jobs come up in the federal service.

Nerys Parry is a former project manager and technical authority on federal government contracts. She lives in Port Hope, Ont.

1 “Work-Life Balance in the Workplace: Where Are We?” Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins. CPRN Discussion Paper W12, October 2001.

2 Working Today: Exploring Employees’ Emotional Connections to their Jobs. 2003: Towers Perrin/Gang & Gang.

3 Labour Forces Survey. Statistics Canada, March 10, 2006.

4 “Headhunters Beat the Bushes: Shortage of Skilled Workers Crosses Sectors,” Duncan Mavin. National Post, November 23, 2005

5 “Measuring Competence,” Prof. Karl Erik Sveiby. Swedish Business School, Hanken, Helsinki, 2001.

6 “When Money’s Not Enough: Luring the Best and Brightest into Public Service,” Deirdre McMurdy. Ottawa Ci
tizen, February 23, 2006

7 “Federal Government Facing Serious Staff Shortages.” National Union of Public and General Service Employees, February 12, 2001.


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