Canadian Consulting Engineer

OPINION: Selling Ourselves Short

October 1, 2012
By By M.G. (Ron) Britton, Ph.D., P.Eng.

t the June 2012 Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC) Summit, industry leaders identified the threat of "public clients hiring . . . based on the lowest fees," and the "difficulty of finding staff with 10 to 20 years'...

t the June 2012 Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC) Summit, industry leaders identified the threat of “public clients hiring . . . based on the lowest fees,” and the “difficulty of finding staff with 10 to 20 years’ experience” as two issues of concern. (, July 3)

These issues are neither new, nor, at their root cause, are they confined to consulting engineering. One of my memories from my graduate studies days at Texas A&M is a picture of J.C. Penny that hung in the Penny’s store in Bryan, Texas. The statement under the picture read: “I have no debate with those who will sell for less. They, better than anyone, know what their product is worth.”

Do we, the engineering profession, know what our “product” is worth? Are we prepared to make certain our customers know as well?

Our profession suffers from being hidden in plain view. We reflect, both internally and externally, a “Sons of Martha” image, content to serve our “betters.” We have allowed others to take control of the big picture, while we focus on answering the technical questions they ask. We, and the services we provide, have in the minds of many become a commodity. Thus we have the lowest fee issue in consulting, and a “service” role within manufacturing and government.

Historically engineers were the dreamers with both the vision and the technical skills to cause change to happen. There are stained glass windows in Westminster Abbey honouring the contributions of British engineers. People like Brunel, Eiffel, Ford and the Stephensons are remembered because they went ahead and did what they “knew” needed to be done. For the first half of the 20th century, their influence shaped our profession.

However, when scientists successfully launched the first satellites and the Space Race began, governments began providing significant funding for science research. Like our scientist colleagues, engineers followed the money. Engineering faculties shifted their focus to the fundamental scientific component of technical issues. Fundamental research is about finding answers to questions, not finding solutions to problems.

Today, faculties of engineering and applied science are populated by academic staff who are promoted on the basis of their research accomplishments. These faculties produce the “academically qualified” graduates who flow into the licensure process. As one would expect, the research interests and experience of academic staff have significant influence on classes and the overall curriculum. Classes and the curriculum define engineering for new graduates.

To be fair, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, on behalf of the profession, provides “specifications” that undergraduate programs must meet. By and large, the graduates of Canadian programs, typically in their early 20s, meet those specifications. The graduates are bright, energetic, eager to contribute, and inexperienced. But their education, of necessity, has focussed on how, not why. They are skilled at answering constrained questions, not at developing potential solutions.

Commercially in all industries new graduates are and always have been a cost to the system because they require mentoring and development. The trick is to find a way to recoup some of that cost. If they receive proper mentoring and development, they will become, in 10 to 20 years, the potential employees with “10 to 20 years of experience.” If they do not receive that mentoring, the current problem will persist.

Maybe a part of the problem starts at its academic base. Maybe undergraduate degrees should focus on engineering in its broadest sense rather than specific technologies. Maybe four years (well 4.85) is too long for a first degree. Maybe technical competence, and the potential to meet technical licencing requirements, should require a design-focussed Masters program. Maybe the B.Sc. and the P.Eng. should become a general professional qualification for engineers who do not focus on technical detail. Maybe we need an additional, but different, professional designation for those who become, by whatever means, the tech specialists. However, the profession must examine what engineering is and what we wish it to become before attempting to explain itself to others.

In today’s environment engineering is a team sport. Teams, by definition, require persons with a variety of skills. However, all teams must have leaders, and those leaders will define both the direction and influence of their team. To a significant extent, engineers have allowed others to take the leadership positions, both inside and outside of the profession, while we have concentrated on dealing with technical details. This leads to “. . . public clients hiring. . . based on . . . the lowest fees” and “service” positions in the corporate/government complex.

If our profession continues to allow others to define who we are and what we are capable of contributing, the concerns identified at the ACEC Summit will continue well into the future. From the perspective of the public (and the corporate/government elite) the consulting industry is the most visible component of our profession. Your industry is the canary in the cage.

Our profession needs to adapt as opportunities emerge. Our profession should lead, not follow. Many within the broader profession are willing to work to find solutions to the problems. As that old cartoon character Pogo once noted, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Dr. M.G. (Ron) Britton, P.Eng.,

is a professor and 3M Teaching Fellow

in the Faculty of Engineering at the

University of Manitoba.


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