Canadian Consulting Engineer

People matter even in a global economy

March 1, 2011
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

I feel there has been a real shift in business culture. Now that we're immersed in the digital era with its vast and speedy communications, the global economy has arrived.

I feel there has been a real shift in business culture. Now that we’re immersed in the digital era with its vast and speedy communications, the global economy has arrived.

The new world order is certainly affecting the consulting engineering industry. As we see from the article “Going Global” (p. 31), more and more consulting engineering firms are being absorbed by huge international corporations. The family tree on page 32-33 lists only acquisitions of companies that had 50 or more employees over the last three years. But there were scores, if not hundreds, of acquisitions of much smaller firms in the same period and before.

The clients interviewed for the article generally felt that the evolution of engineering firms into global conglomerates was a good thing. It enables the engineering companies to keep up with the growing size and complexity of projects.

As well, the advent of larger firms goes hand in hand with changes in how projects are organized. Many projects are being done as public private partnerships, which means consulting engineering firms who want to participate have to be of sufficient size and financial heft. The P3 consortia include financial backers who feel much more comfortable knowing that the consultants designing their investments are large corporations like themselves.

The resulting transformation is turning consulting engineering from a college of local professional firms into a pantheon of global giants. Naturally the shift deeply affects those who work in the industry. Off the record we hear reports of “stampedes of talent” and situations where nearly half the original employees have left after a corporate takeover.

But for young employees in their 20s and 30s, corporatism seems to be an accepted norm. Raised on the internet, the 20-somethings fit naturally into a global environment on every level. They are not fazed by the fact that they are a single point in a vast – largely anonymous – corporate universe. After all, they can keep in touch constantly with their own network of personal contacts via their smart phones.

No matter what the industry, many young people these days are hired only temporarily, on contracts. They don’t know what it is like to be permanent employees with benefits and a reliable income for the long term. In some industries – telecommunications and retail, for example – it’s even common to deny contractual employees two consecutive days off work.

In the Darwinian world of business, no doubt companies both large and small feel they have to use contract employees in order to survive. But there are dangers. If young people are treated as dispensable commodities, then employers shouldn’t be surprised when these youngsters act as commodities and show little commitment to their jobs.

Given that consulting engineering still relies on face-to-face relationships, the industry has to nurture its upcoming young people. All the clients we interviewed for “Going Global” emphasized the same thing. Whether a consulting engineering company is small, large, or gigantic, it is always the individual personalities within it who make or break the client’s relationship with the firm. Bronwen Parsons


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