Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Great Grey Drop-off

December 1, 2011
By By Jean Sorensen

Consulting professional engineer Ahmet (Met) Ulker at age 58 doesn't see himself retiring at the traditional age of 65 from the Vancouver office of Applied Engineering Solutions where he works as a principal. "I'll probably be here until I'm...

Consulting professional engineer Ahmet (Met) Ulker at age 58 doesn’t see himself retiring at the traditional age of 65 from the Vancouver office of Applied Engineering Solutions where he works as a principal. “I’ll probably be here until I’m 70,” he says.

But when he does exit with a gold watch he’s confident that his company will be one of those that survives. It has healthy succession and sustainability plans in place and a corporate culture aimed at surfing over the tidal wave of greying baby-boomers who are nearing retirement age.

Baby-boomers like Ulker are staying on in the workplace so that they can help shift corporate ownership and industry knowledge from their senior group to a much younger group of people — people often only in their 30s. The age gap between the senior and succeeding groups is because the three age groups that have commonly sustained Canadian engineering firms have taken a hit in the middle rank. Consequently, the industry faces both short and long-term labour challenges.

“We are pretty well off,” says Ulker. Over a three-year period, the Vancouver office has gone from one to 25 employees. There are now three senior partners in their 50s.

At the same time, “We have only one employee in his 40s, and the next oldest is 35 years old,” says Ulker. “So there is a gap between those 35 and those almost 58 years old.”

The middle group of 35 to 45-year olds has been virtually gutted from the engineering industry. Brent Lyon, P.Eng., national recruiter for engineers across Canada for David Aplin Recruiting, serves on committees at the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia, speaks at academic recruitment events, and handles a recruiting team searching for engineers. He put it in simple numbers using B.C. statistics.

“Last year there were 6,185 P.Eng’s and P.Geo’s aged 45 to 54, and only 4,393 between 35 and 44 — a ratio of 1.4:1 in the wrong direction,” points out Lyon.

“Even if we retained 100% of the engineers who are around 40 years of age, we’d still have to import about 2,000 more in order to fill the vacancies that will come about from the older age demographic departing over time,” says Lyon.

The B.C. demographics for geoscientists is particularly bad as there are only 246 at ages 35-44, and 542 between the ages of 45-55 — just over twice the number heading for retirement than in the wave behind.

A once stalled mining sector, roller coaster economy, and generally spot contracts where companies have finished with the engineer when the project is done have contributed to the slim middle population. The valleys occurred in 2008, 2000, 1993, 1983, and 1972. The mining sector was especially hard hit. University enrolment nosedived. “We forgot to make them [engineers] for several years,” Lyon says. One University of British Columbia graduating class in mining during the 1990s “could fit around a picnic table. It was unbelievably tiny,” he says.

“We have also not really treated engineers well,” says Lyon. Conversely, he says, engineers have not been good at promoting their self-worth or explaining to employers what they add to the bottom line beyond the project life, something that accountants and lawyers have accomplished.

“Engineers, though, are smart creatures,” says Lyon, and have the ability to adapt during long employment droughts by entering other professions. “They make good realtors, good IT consultants and equipment sales people – there are all sorts of ways that engineers can leave.” Regrettably, they don’t come back.

While the supply of “experienced” engineers is dwindling, the need for them has surged.

So in Saskatchewan where there is a demand for engineers to work on the province’s mega-projects in oil and gas, membership in the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS) has doubled since 2005. However, a large percentage of those people are members-in-training or engineers coming from outside the province or from outside the country.

Keeping baby boomers tethered

One solution to the dearth in middle-ranking engineers is to have the baby-boomers stick around. Ulker has two retirees, friends in the industry, who are professional engineers willing to work on a casual basis. “One is 79 and the other is 68 years of age,” he says, adding that they work at their own pace on an hourly basis, putting in the number of hours that they want. “Sometimes they work out of their own homes,” he says.

“You have to be flexible and moderate with the retirement age today,” said Jeff Corbett, P.Eng., managing principal at Read Jones Christofferson (RJC) in Vancouver. “You can’t just hand someone a gold watch at age 65. It is really a two-way street.” Companies realize there is a need to accommodate individuals who want to work past retirement age and also those who want to fade out gradually. RJC has kept several of its retired employees tethered and available to work part time for the company.

One such RJC employee, who asked not to be named, sees it as an ideal arrangement. RJC pays his professional association dues and he can still enjoy retirement but also the workplace he’s known for 40 years. “I work mainly in the background,” the 67-year-old says. “I don’t do client work.”

He sees himself as fulfilling ancillary needs. Working retirees have vast “institutional memories” and “not everything is written down.” He’s been asked about 25-year-old projects, who worked on them, what were the challenges, and hurdles that had to be overcome.

A second major role that retirees play today, he says, is serving on committees within companies and the industry, something junior members with young families may not have time for.

A third role retirees take on is working with younger individuals, passing down knowledge or giving lectures on specialized topics where they have expertise. These seminar and mentoring activities help the retiree to meet the annual professional competency standards.

“It’s interesting and it keeps me occupied,” says the RJC retiree.

Tethering baby-boomers is only a stopgap measure. Lyon says there is the reality that boomers will grow bored over the long haul and eventually want to move off. “When you have a senior person who is used to leading a project — does that 67 year old want to be hunched over a drawing board doing pipe sizing?” he asks.

The slim middle’s waste

With the 35 to 50 year-old group thinned down, there are two issues: how to add to the ranks and how to hang onto the people you have.

“We can’t have engineers from other countries driving taxis,” Ulker says simply. It’s a fact of life that immigrant talent is often wasted for lack of assistance and opportunity.

“Whenever I’m in a taxi or somewhere, I ask the individual what they did before,” he says. When the response comes back that the person was an engineer but has no credentials in Canada, Ulker says: “I tell them, come and see me.” He offers to find them more lucrative work or to start the individual on the path to return to their chosen field.

Ulker is also engaging the middle-group managers he does have by getting them to invest in the company. “We are not waiting until people are 40-45 years of age to make associates,” he says. Making younger partners fulfils two functions. “They know they are not going to move around,” he says, and that’s a family plus. There is also more time for the company to groom new partners. When a retirement is announced Ulker’s firm immediately starts the hunt for a suitable candidate as it can take years for someone to grow into the role and work well with other partners.

Lyon’s team is looking offshore for engineers to fill the middle gap. Engineers are being hired from places such as the Philippines, China, India and Iran. “If you can find someone from Sharif University of Technology [in Tehran], hire that
person – it’s like the Yale of the Middle East. They [the graduates] are brilliant and their English is fluent,” says Lyon. There’s the rub, especially when hiring executives or senior engineers from offshore: “You really want someone to be fluent in front of clients and do a compelling presentation,” he says.

Nationally, professional organizations have recognized the need to bring in more engineers from other countries and have facilitated the process. Engineers Canada has ratified several international mobility agreements for both graduates and professional engineers from other countries.

According to a source at APEGBC, in the past year: “Of the approximately 1,000 applicants applying to APEGBC for registration as professional engineers for the first time in Canada (not transferring membership from other provinces or territories), 39% were internationally-trained … and 61% were Canadian trained.”

How long Canada can depend on transplanted skills is another question. Many in the engineering community cite six and seven digit figures for the number of engineers graduating in places like China. However, BusinessWeek magazine in 2005 explored these figures and found they fell far short as the term “engineering” was not equal to definitions in the U.S. The figures of those who would qualify for engineering status were much lower.

Lyons believes that eventually all the engineers from offshore will be needed within their own countries, a move that will only make shortages more acute in Canada.

Attracting more engineers into the pool

Organizations like the Structural Engineering Association of B.C. (SEABC) may provide a solution for attracting more young people into practising engineering. When university students take a SEABC course, they receive a free membership. Of the association’s 828 members, 256 are students.

Ulker’s firm is being careful to invest knowledge in its younger employees. The company hosts regular catered lunch sessions where the engineers discuss issues and problems. The sessions help to trickle down knowledge to junior staff. Ulker also broadens their knowledge with field trips. “When there is a plant or facility to see somewhere that involves a trip … we send some of the younger guys.”

The company has its engineers specialize in various areas of electrical engineering, a move that makes them more efficient and provides greater expertise in solving client problems. “If you take five engineers who only study one field over a period of time you have five specialists who are very good at what they do – it reduces the gestation period of engineering,” Ulker says. It also makes the individual more valuable to the company.

All these programs are investing in individuals to encourage them to stay for the long run. But are they enough? Ulker believes his firm has done all it can to create a firm that is now internally sustainable.

What about the engineers who have left the industry. Can they be wooed back? Lyon’s experience has found it a hard task. “A maternity leave isn’t problematic, but if you’ve been away for eight or 10 years, you’ll be too rusty to go back as is,” he says. “An engineer would need to re-educate him or herself. Then it gets down to psychology. You’d be re-educating yourself to get back to the career level you were at a decade ago. It would be demoralizing. Most people wouldn’t do it.” cce

 Jean Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.


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