Canadian Consulting Engineer

Missing persons: Generation X and the shortage of young engineers

August 1, 2000
By Bronwen Ledger

No-one ever said that finding a job after you graduate was a stroll down easy street, but for students who emerged from engineering schools in the early 1990s, it was especially tough. That was the ti...

No-one ever said that finding a job after you graduate was a stroll down easy street, but for students who emerged from engineering schools in the early 1990s, it was especially tough. That was the time when the construction industry imploded. The collapse was part of the general economic recession, but was worse and went on much longer than in other sectors.

Russ Golightly, P.Eng. remembers coming out of the University of Calgary in 1993 with a degree in civil engineering and finding the school’s employment notice board held slim pickings. “Everybody was clamouring for the few jobs that were posted there,” he says. The positions went to two or three per cent of the students with the top grades, and “the rest of us were left to our own devices.”

After sending out a sheaf of resums to companies and receiving no response, Golightly decided to try the personal touch. He’d seek out an individual engineer within a company to contact. “I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere when I’d drop off my resum dressed up in my suit and saw the secretary at the front desk. The guy was too busy to see me.”

Today, seven years later, Golightly is the guy on the other side of the equation. As a project coordinator for the City of Calgary corporate properties group, Golightly is involved in hiring the services of consulting engineering firms — the very organizations that once ignored his advances. In his early 30s, he is happily established with a new house, and is helping to manage all kinds of building projects, from land development, to the Plus 15 skywalk, to renovations at the Science Centre.

Meanwhile consulting engineering firms are desperately looking for people of his age group and experience. With their order books full, firms are finding themselves short of a particular stratum of engineer at the junior to intermediate level. These missing persons are individuals like Golightly who graduated in the early 1990s and would have accumulated around five to 10 years experience in a consulting firm by now. They would be taking charge of small projects and giving support to senior engineers on larger propositions — that is, if they had ever been able to find solid, long-term work with consulting engineers when they left university.

When he couldn’t find employment as a trainee engineer, Golightly ended up taking a series of “mediocre” jobs that saw him bouncing across three provinces. First, he went back to his summer job lugging around a nuclear densometer. “I took a job to make sure I got a pay check in the next month,” he says. “I was paid $10 an hour to pound a stake in the ground in order to get a soil test.” Then he went to work for a masonry company. “I was just an estimator. I was figuring out how many blocks it takes to put up a wall, and I would apply unit pricing and tell the people what it would cost.”

Golightly didn’t expect to walk straight into a top design job. But, he says, “On the other side, I had all these skills and I had no reason to understand why I needed any of them if this was all I was going to do.” Cheerful and upbeat, Golightly has the character to persevere and he was lucky. After a year he found work designing a bridge with a consulting firm. But there was no job security. When the market became depressed again in 1996, the company sent him off to their Regina office for six months. Then they had to lay him off. Things continued much the same with short-term work stretches until Golightly finally ended up in his present government job, which he loves.

Golightly’s experiences in the early 1990s are far from unusual. Speak to anyone who graduated in engineering during the recession and they’ll talk about having to take low-paid, unskilled, short-term work — and being lucky even to get that. Glenna Jones, P.Eng., a fellow engineering graduate of Golightly’s, ended up waitressing for a year. She kept her eye out for customers with iron rings who would be likely employers. One day she struck lucky and landed her first job that was remotely related to technology. It was in data sales and earned her the grand salary of $12,000 per year. Eventually she too found work she loves as an engineer, in the oil and gas sector, but it was a long trail along several dead-end streets. The situation was just as hard for graduates in Ontario. Bassim Matuk graduated in 1994 with a master’s degree in civil engineering. He sent out 200 resums, got just two interviews, and it turned out those employers wanted people with experience. While sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, he developed his computer skills. He is now living in Texas, working for a computer company and earning a much bigger salary than he would in consulting engineering.

The Baby Bust and the war for talent

Could it be that the unstable job market in the early 90s turned so many young engineers off consulting engineering in Canada as a career that it is causing the staff shortages firms are now facing?

The competition for skilled staff has become so fierce between consulting engineers it has been called the “war for talent.” In its 1999 survey, the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC) discovered that finding staff was a major concern of its members, second only to issues surrounding low fees.

John Boyd, P.Eng., president of Golder Associates in Oakville, Ontario and last year’s chair of ACEC, says, “It’s becoming an increasing battle to get people with a few years of experience. [At Golder] We like — and so does everybody else — to get our hands on graduates who have three to five years’ experience. And there’s a shortage in that particular area. Obviously they are a lot more useful than people who are straight out of school.”

Nancy McCreary, who is in charge of human resources at Golder, agrees: “We seem to have a real shortage of engineers at the intermediate levels — not quite specialists, but more journeyman engineers who already have lots of experience under their belt, and who can get going on a job without a lot of guidance.” She hears managers complain about the problem all the time. “It’s a real nightmare,” she says, “trying to find, say, a hydrogeologist that is at a level four or five. They would be 30 to 35-year olds.”

In Vancouver, Jeremy Kon, P.Eng., chair and chief executive officer of UMA Group, and vice-president Marg Latham, P.Eng., who is in charge of the firm’s strategies for human resources, say they are experiencing a problem at the same levels. They don’t find themselves short of fresh graduates, but rather “the cohort behind the baby boom.”

If we assume that the missing cohort graduated aged around 23 to 25, most would fall into what David K. Foot refers to as the “Baby Bust” generation, i.e. born between 1967 and 1979. Foot is the master of Canadian demographic categories, and with Daniel Stoffman he wrote Boom, Bust & Echo (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 1996). According to Foot’s definitions, the “Baby Bust” reflects a period of population decline after the Baby Boom. (For example, by 1996 Canada had approximately 400,000 Baby Busters aged 20, compared to 550,000 Baby Boomers aged 35). Those at the senior end of the missing cohort (aged in their mid-30s now) were born at the end of the Baby Boom, and fall into what is known as Generation X.

This deliciously exotic term was coined by another celebrated Canadian author, Vancouver novelist Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s book Generation X (he borrowed the term from a sociology writer, Paul Fussell), has spawned a whole subculture (at least 20 web sites) and is becoming a household word to describe young people who feel socially and culturally dislocated from the mainstream. Originally, however, the 1991 book referred to Coupland’s own generation of tail-end Boomers, then aged in their 20s.

Foot points out that Generation Xers and Baby Busters have much in common. Both came of age during economically troubled times, and both were disadvantaged by having to compete with the bulging Baby Boom ahead of them. As a result they have had to rely on their own resources to survive, nimbly hopping between different jobs
and developing skills on their own because they couldn’t depend on traditional long-term employment.

Brain drain and immigration

Given the population decline of the Baby Bust generation, couldn’t the shortage of people in their 30s at consulting engineering firms simply be a factor of missing bodies? What about engineering school enrolment? Was there a corresponding downturn in the number of engineering students in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

In fact, the opposite is true. According to figures supplied by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, the number of undergraduates enrolled in Canadian engineering schools increased dramatically around 1990 compared to the decade before. During the 1980s the roster held steady around 32,000 to 35,000 students, but in 1990 it shot up to 40,000. (Enrollment has been rising steadily since, and is now at 45,000.)

If we compare the figures in, say, 1988, two years before our hypothetical person from the missing cohort graduated in 1990, there were 32,798 engineering students enrolled. But 10 years earlier in 1980, the year that a senior Baby Boomer engineer now in their 40s would have been in school, there were slightly fewer students: 32,179. So it doesn’t seem that a low supply of graduates accounts for the current staff shortages.

Perhaps the problem is more to do with the economy. During the 1990s recession, with construction in a lull, there were more than enough people to go round. Now, with an economic boom in full swing, firms are feeling the strain. Competition for engineers in the electrical field has always been tough, but Myron Washchyshyn, P.Eng., president of Mulvey and Banani, electrical consulting engineers of Toronto, says, “It’s been worse in the last two or three years.” The firm employs about 20 professional engineers, and they often have to put in long hours. Washchyshyn says the staff shortage affects the amount of work the firm can pursue. A principal can only put so much pressure on employees when they know that a headhunter is just at the end of the telephone waiting to lure his staff away to the competition.

Electrical engineering is especially vulnerable because of the explosion in computers and telecommunications, and the brain drain. Many electrical engineers are heading south, drawn to highly paid jobs in places like Palo Alto, California. Guy Christian, a principal of the Design Group, a national engineering recruitment firm, says that about 10 to 12 per cent of his firm’s business involves finding people in Canada for jobs in the U.S.. Most of these are for electrical, mechanical and process engineers.

But Christian says there isn’t that much movement south of civil engineers. Hence the brain drain doesn’t account for the shortage of people in that discipline. Moreover, immigration goes a long way to offset the brain drain. Statistics Canada reports that during the 1990s, for each university graduate that went south to the U.S., Canada imported four. As fast as the Design Group sends engineers south, it brings more engineers into Canada from other countries, especially South Africa and the United Kingdom. Christian estimates that 20 to 30 per cent of their business involves immigration. Mulvey and Banani have filled five empty workstations with people who were trained as engineers in other countries. (Interestingly, many of these immigrant trainee electrical engineers are women.)

Look back

It seems that much of the problem of the missing persons in consulting firms is a lingering hangover from the recession. Faced with horrendous competition, short order books and the spectre of folding under the financial pressure, consulting firms were reluctant or unable to take on graduate engineers back in the early 1990s. Now they’re paying the price.

As a recruiter, Christian can assess the situation objectively: “The problem as I see it has been based in the industry, which has geared around the downturn of the early 80s and then subsequently of the early 90s. Unfortunately the younger engineer was not brought on through [the system] as has been the case in the past.”

He sees this neglect leading directly to the current shortages: “Now we have a situation where we have a reasonable supply of fresh graduate engineers. We also have a reasonably good supply of senior engineers with 15 to 20 years’ experience. Our big problem is the in-between, the junior intermediates. In the circumstances of the economic downturn, they got frustrated to the degree that a lot of them changed career paths and never even entered the engineering field.”

The people that did stay in engineering found they were bandied from pillar to post. Ask almost anyone who graduated early in the last decade and they have stories like Golightly’s about bouncing around from job to job, from place to place. If anyone did manage to find a position in a consulting firm, it would be on a project by project basis, and they’d be laid off as soon as the order books dried up.

What this turbulence bred was young engineers with thick hides and a look-after-yourself mentality. Young 30-somethings today harbour no sentimental attachment to their employers. They are positive about life, but they also know that they were left to their own devices in their early working lives, and that they survived by their own wit and perseverance. These are the kind of characters who populate Seinfeld. They thrive on irony and a sense of the absurd. They fling off phrases like, “life sucks, get a helmet.” They are wary and sceptical: “It’s a survival of the fittest type thing, as is most everything in life these days,” says one about finding a job in engineering.

Russ Golightly remembers a day during the recession when he and other young graduates were taken out for lunch by the president of a consulting engineering firm. Golightly recalls: “He sat down, and said ‘Listen, when I graduated you got into a company and you put your heart and soul into the thing. You scraped together money to get shares.’

“And I said,” Golightly continues, “‘But you’re not offering this. You’re offering us a job today where the rug is going to be pulled out from under us tomorrow.’ At the time three months of work was the best projection a consulting firm could give me. And even then I was pushing my luck and in two months I could be laid off. So why would I pour my heart and soul into a company? Last hired, first fired — that’s the way it is.”

No surprise then, that these young people don’t feel any strong obligation to stay with one firm. And consulting firm principals understand how they feel. John Boyd of Golder says: “We find that people in that age group are much more mobile than they used to be. They tend to move from company to company more than was the case 20 years go. But who can blame them if you look at the history of companies downsizing and laying off vast numbers of people? I don’t think there’s any reason for them to have the same sort of loyalty.”

Image and money

As any principal of a consulting engineering firm knows, the future is only as bright as its young employees. Firms can’t do much about the cyclical nature of the economy, but they can plan and make better preparations for their future staffing needs. Today the critical need is for intermediate engineers, but firms are also out looking for new graduates. “The industry is building,” Boyd points out, and notes that ACEC estimates firms will be looking to hire 2,000 graduate engineers in 2000 — a number unheard of in recent years.

If Generation X and the Baby Busters don’t find consulting engineering an attractive career option, why should new graduates feel any different? Years ago consulting firms were able to draw the cream off the cream of graduates pouring out of engineering faculties. Students clamoured to find positions with consulting firms because they carried a lot of prestige, paid well and even — if you were lucky — gave you a chance to travel and see the world.

Today, the image of consulting engineering has faded somewhat behind the brilliant, white-hot lights of other industries. “To be honest,” says Myron Washchyshy
n, “construction these days is not sexy.” On the other hand, “a or an IBM — the notion of being in a business that can explode overnight and be earth-shattering — holds a lot of appeal for the young guys.”

He sees a reverse of the old situation. “In former years, the larger corporations — IBM, Nortel, the big corporations — seemed very impersonal. People would shun them because they would become just a number, [whereas] there was an attraction to getting involved in a hands-on consulting business. Well, now, with all their money and their research, people like Nortel are trendsetters. And they are good — I mean, they are really good — to their employees. It becomes difficult to compete.”

The global corporations can offer perks that most consulting firms cannot begin to emulate. Daycares, training centres, stock options, not to mention unlimited opportunities for advancement — are just not part of the picture with an average-sized or small firm.

Then there’s money. For years salaries have been sinking under the pressure of fee competition between firms, which has left them in a dismal position when it comes to attracting top talent. A survey published this year by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC) showed that the mean annual salary (all levels) paid to its members by consulting engineers was second lowest on the scale at $75,334. Meanwhile, the mean salary paid to engineers by management consultants, resource and high tech industries was over $90,000 a year.

In Ontario, the situation is better. The 1999 Professional Engineers Ontario salary survey showed that consulting firms actually paid engineers at Level C and D (first level project supervisors and specialists) slightly more than most other engineering employers, though annual salaries remained in the $60,000 to $70,000 per annum range. It seems, though, that the consulting firms have only recently pulled up their socks. The increase over the previous reporting period for the Level C and D group in consulting firms was 7.5% to 7.8%, far higher than the percentage increase at this level in any other sector.

The root of the problem, though, may be something more intangible than dollars. Consulting firms are still carrying a lot of image baggage from the 1960s and 70s. They are seen as hierarchical, and even exploitative. They have the reputation of asking young engineers to work long hours for no overtime pay. Many haven’t yet embraced the new casual work environment — young people want flexible hours to look after their families and personal lives. People don’t want to come dressed in a suit and tie any more.

Much work needs to be done to raise the profile of consulting engineering at the universities. For some students, it isn’t even on the radar. One electrical graduate told us that her fellow students were scarcely aware of consulting engineers as a possible employer, and a recruitment agent at the University of Toronto Faculty of Engineering didn’t know there was an association of such firms.

The lack of visibility on campus should change. With a grant from Human Resources Development Canada, ACEC has launched a campaign to promote consulting engineering as an employer in the schools and universities. In the meantime firms are left struggling, trying to compete in the global market with a missing cohort of 30-something, Generation X-ers who should be out there on the front lines.


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