Canadian Consulting Engineer

Talking to Young Professionals

June 1, 2011
By By Andrew Steeves, P.Eng

It has been said both that "youth is wasted on the young" and that "experience is wasted on the old." These are rather cynical statements reflecting two solitudes. The good news in our industry is that the Association of Consulting Engineering...

It has been said both that “youth is wasted on the young” and that “experience is wasted on the old.” These are rather cynical statements reflecting two solitudes. The good news in our industry is that the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Canada (ACEC/AFIC) and its provincial member organizations are attempting to bridge the solitudes with a series of talks by experienced consulting managers to young professionals.

As part of this ACEC initiative I have made presentations to young professional groups (YPs) in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick. It has been an energizing experience for me, and I think it has been educational for the YPs.

Speaking to young professionals has turned out to be quite different than I expected. The topics that I thought would interest the audience received polite interest, while remarks that I had included as asides or afterthoughts generated considerable discussion.

After giving seven talks to a combined audience of over 300 young consulting practitioners I do not claim to be an expert on either youth or experience. However I have several observations that I think should interest both the young professionals and their managers.

Observation 1:

The young professionals are keen. Across the country in large centres and small there was good attendance at all the sessions, with lots of questions and good discussions afterwards. Other people who have presented to young professionals have also reported a high level of interest and engagement. Our young staff want to learn more about our business.

This is an important point. The future of our industry rests with its younger workers. Knowing that they want to learn about the ins and outs of the business should reassure all industry leaders. Consider the alternative. I would argue that as young professionals too many of my contemporaries were not interested enough in the business side of consulting engineering, and as a result we are experiencing poor business practices today.

Having keen young staff is a good thing.

Observation 2:

Consulting engineering is an industry of mystery. This is the polite way of stating that most young professionals do not know much about how our businesses are run, how we find work, or how we make money.

However it is not just the young professionals who are mystified. Over many years I have presented variations of my talk to young professionals and older professionals, both consultants and clients. In many instances managers have taken as many notes as the YPs. Seeing the YPs take notes has been reassuring — after all, they are there to learn. Seeing their managers take notes has not been reassuring — shouldn’t they know the topic already?

One of the topics covered in my presentation is “How Consulting Engineers Make Money.” The core of my presentation is the various methods we use to charge our clients and the necessity of understanding our costs before setting prices. Most of the talk, therefore, is about the build-up of our charge-out rates. To their credit the YPs are not satisfied accepting a rate schedule: they want to know the basis for the rates.

If the average new employee is surprised to learn that clients are charged three times salary, the average client is appalled. Yet after complaining to us about our rates, some of those clients will go to a garage and pay similar rates for repairing their cars.

Over the last few years ACEC has been promoting qualifications-based selection (QBS) to clients and our industry. At times, selling QBS to fellow engineering firms has been as difficult a job as it has been selling it to clients. When asked why they resist this Best Practice these managers reply that the client will not accept QBS. This is despite the fact that “The Best Practice” document was developed by client groups (such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities) and follows methods that clients use to hire lawyers, accountants, management consultants and new staff within their own organizations.

The best way to remove mystery is through education. ACEC’s “Best Practice ” presentation package is part of the talk I give to YPs.

Observation 3:

YPs are seeking direction and growth in their careers. First let’s have a managers’ quiz: When was the last time you had a performance review with your young professionals? Was the focus of that review on past performance or on career development or both? Did you discuss technical matters or business concerns?

In my experience YPs want frequent reviews; they want constructive feedback; they want to discuss the future as well as their past successes (or struggles), and they want a plan.

After my presentations some YPs have contacted me with variations of this question: how do I get my manager to pay attention to me? Young engineers, architects and technologists want to know their career options and to see a draft plan for their future development. If they are asked to do repetitious tasks, is it because they need a solid grounding in basics such as record-keeping or use of design tools? Or is it because their manager is too busy to take the time to train them to do something more challenging? Some of your staff suspect the latter is the case.

What would you do if you were in the YPs’ situation? Think back 15 or 20 years. How impatient were you? Were you as agreeable then as you are today?

Observation 4:

Most employers support education for their young professionals. The attendees have come from large and small firms, reflecting the support that ACEC provincial associations are seeing for YP programs across Canada. Again, this is a good thing. The quicker that YPs learn our business the sooner they will apply those good practices to their projects.

However not all firms in our industry are supporting business education for their young employees. I hope the rationale is not a desire to keep staff uninformed about business issues because this would be shortsighted and counterproductive. Would you want a young employee to be pricing a project without knowing costs and expenses?

Again is this not shortsighted? Recruiters will find talent whether you hide it or not. Furthermore, an uneducated employee will be more susceptible to the siren call of a recruiter than one who has an appreciation of the bottom line.

Observation 5:

Culture may change, people do not. There has been an extensive discussion in management circles about the “generations” (“boomers,” “X,” “Y,” “next,” “me,” etc.). As managers, we have been told that young people today are different and that we must understand these differences in order to manage young people effectively. I have come to the conclusion that much of the discussion has been unhelpful and a waste of time.

The questions and comments from today’s young professionals are the same as those asked by my co-workers and me when we were new to the industry. How do I get ahead? Why do we run our business this way? Why don’t clients recognize the obvious fact that our firm is better than the other guys? Why doesn’t my manager talk to me more? How do I get more compensation? Must accounting run everything?

If I have one recommendation to make to managers in our industry it is to drop the pop psychology and to start listening to your young professionals. Every generation of young people finds ways to exclude its elders by developing its own language and culture and social networks. You did it, your parents did it and now your kids are doing it. As managers it is our responsibility to bridge the gap.

Once you start listening you will discover that the shy engineer in the corner is much like that quiet fellow in your structures course who aced all the assignments. That pushy young architect in your buildings group is similar to that funny classmate who organized the
class brewery tour.

It is not helpful to allow your relations with young professionals to be governed by an article stating that “today’s youth is more self-centred than previous generations.” I grew up in the 1960s and some people were self-centred then too.

People do not change, cultures do.

Observation 6:

We must teach young professionals about business because they are not taught it in our universities or community colleges. As noted previously, when I present “How Consulting Engineers Make Money,” most young professionals find it to be a revelation. However, I would venture to say that 90% of engineering professors would find it to be a revelation as well.

Engineering professors know little about business — especially our business. Worse still, many of them do not think it is important. The consequences of this attitude are bad enough when their students join our firms — at least we have a chance to educate those graduates. The most serious consequences occur when the graduates join clients such as governments, public utilities and agencies where there is no profit motive and little appreciation of business practices.

So while we are playing with fire if we do not teach young engineers, technologists and architects the basics of our business, there is a broader need to educate the engineering establishment within our educational institutions and not-for-profit clients. This should be a key priority for ACEC and its member organizations in the next few years.

FINAL OBservation:

I have learned as much from the young professionals as the YPs have learned from me. Start talking to them and you will both learn a great deal. cce

Andrew Steeves, P.Eng. is a consulting engineer at exp. in Fredericton, New Brunswick and a past Chair of ACEC and ACEC-NB. E-mail

“It is not helpful to allow your relations with young professionals

to be governed by an article stating that “today’s youth is more self-centred than previous generations. “


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