Canadian Consulting Engineer

What’s Out there? Scanning the future for engineers

January 1, 2000
By Norman R. Ball

When I talked to professional engineers about the challenges facing Canadian engineering in the 21st century, every single one mentioned survival. This would not surprise Canadian author Margaret Atwo...

When I talked to professional engineers about the challenges facing Canadian engineering in the 21st century, every single one mentioned survival. This would not surprise Canadian author Margaret Atwood. In her 1972 book Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, she identified the victim struggling for survival as the central image of Canadian culture.

But what will help consulting engineering firms survive in the 21st century? Peter Schwartz is chairman of Global Business Network in California and author of one of my favourite books, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World (New York: Doubleday, 1991). In a recent interview he told me, “What I have discovered over the years is that almost 100 per cent of the errors with regard to thinking about the future are a result of denial; that is to say, not an absence of facts or information, but simply not wanting to see the results.” During periods of rapid change our greatest enemies are denial and static mental maps and patterns of assumptions.

To peer more clearly into the future we must learn to look more closely, honestly and imaginatively at the present, at what we already know or should be able to see. Listening to new sources and fresh interpretations are important survival tools in times of change like ours.

The business front

Engineering faces so many challenges that Franklin Holtforster, P.Eng., of MPMH Project Managers of Ottawa says, “Engineers are no longer their own worst enemies.” Firms now have more to worry about than a competitor beating them out of a contract. Continuing downward pressures on consulting fees have created a situation that threatens the profits, salaries and long-term viability of consulting engineers. Firms with limited financial resources and bargaining power — as well as staying power — are in for a rough ride. Holtforster points to a number of venerable Canadian firms that in the last few years have fallen under American control or ownership. Other professional engineers echo Holtforster’s concerns.

Bruce Bodden, P.Eng., executive vice-president of Marshall Macklin Monaghan in Toronto, says that “the more-for-less business environment [has led to] industry consolidation for the last five years.” He expects firms are heading for even more intense competition. For many medium-sized to large firms, the 1990s were “frightening, exciting and almost traumatic.” Don’t expect these conditions to disappear.

Bodden says American firms are buying into Canadian firms to get access to total project delivery work in the Canadian market. He says that this approach usually requires “greater financial depth and skills” than most engineering firms possess. This is why Holtforster thinks that in future engineering firms “will no longer work for the project owner and will be further down the food chain, in an environment where there may be less appreciation of the role and standards of engineers.” He mentions a recent so-called design-build project in which an engineering firm was simply working on a fee basis for a construction company and notes dryly, “Contractors are not generous.”

Bodden remembers that when house-builders and land developers converged, architects found themselves with less work. “What if engineering design becomes a loss leader for an investment house, pension fund, construction firm or any other multidisciplinary players who see a project in its totality?” Bodden didn’t answer his own question, but he offered a strong hint: “Engineering for free doesn’t bode well.”

These trends are all part of globalization. We may not be able to stop the changes, but we can influence them. Globalization works two ways: Canadian engineers can leave Canada to work, but non-Canadians come into Canada for the same reason. The theory of economic globalization is that everything is universally interchangeable. The reality is something else. According to Dr. Norm Becker, P.Eng., president of the Becker Engineering Group of Windsor, Ontario, “Science is universal, but engineering is not….You can’t do engineering in a vacuum. You have to apply scientific principles with due regard to culture, regulation, code, standards and customs to fit the characteristics of a region.” The differences in culture and customs are the subtlest, hardest ones to learn.

Canadians sometimes forget that they have the most regulated engineering profession in the world in terms of licensing and self-policing, standards of professional practice and ethics. Becker fears the worst and that standards might suffer if “international trade organizations [rather than engineering organizations] end up deciding if engineers can come in,” and if national-level agreements leave the provinces and the engineering associations with no real say in critical matters. Who will monitor engineers unacquainted with self-regulation? Who assumes long-term liability when individuals or corporations come into Canada, work and then leave before problems show up?

Engineers don’t even have to come to Canada to compete. They can stay at home and deliver an “electronic onslaught” of engineering and other technical services to Canadian clients. As Holtforster asks, “When data is so easy to move, why not get it designed offshore and have one engineer here put his or her stamp on the work?”

Solving these problems may call for political action. Unfortunately, that’s where Canadian engineers have a terrible track record.

Leadership and political clout

Political lethargy is a Canadian engineering tradition. Patrick Quinn, P.Eng., current president of Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO), speaks about the “need for profound changes” in a profession so apathetic that only 25 per cent of the association’s members vote in elections. Even that figure is high compared to the few hundred out of a membership of more than 62,000 who can summon the interest to attend an annual general meeting. Of course, these figures also say something about the organization. For example, Quinn says that students often tell provincial associations, “You don’t come to us. You don’t even tell us what an engineer is.” Holtforster says the organization has “lost touch with reality. It is largely irrelevant.”

Holtforster thinks the membership philosophy of the organization is all wrong, not just at PEO, but in every province. He believes engineering associations took the wrong turn when they decided to go for the high-volume, low-cost-per-member approach. Given the current problems with professional associations, the likelihood that engineers will make themselves heard as much as they should about the challenges posed by globalization is small. But the associations are only a symptom, not the cause of political apathy. Quinn adds, “We need an educated engineer, not just an engineer. If we don’t get past this, all the rest is just technicalities.”

Whereas in professions such as law it is considered normal behaviour for someone to speak up and run for political office, a politically active engineer is a rare beast. John Boyd, P.Eng. of Golder Associates in Mississauga, Ontario is chair of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada. He laments the “reluctance of engineers to stand up and talk about public issues.” But he sees it as a natural consequence of how we produce engineers. “We carefully filter engineering students according to their interest in science and math. That means we tend to get introverted people who are not right for public participation.” The university curriculum and general atmosphere reinforce the don’t-get-involved ethos. Finally, “what the university starts, the consulting engineering profession finishes off.” They don’t encourage political participation.

According to PEO and others, Canada has a lower rate of engineering involvement in politics and public life than any other major industrial country in the world. Does this matter? Boyd thinks so. “It is the politicians who decide priorities and make major decisions.” An engineer who asked not to be identified puts it more bluntly. “The politicians make the decisions; then the engi
neers and scientists fight over the table scraps and delude themselves into thinking they are making significant decisions.”

Engineering input and understanding are noticeably absent in Commons, caucus and cabinet. When it happens it might be oft-repeated news, but is then forgotten. The Canadian Encyclopaedia doesn’t even mention that former Governor General Schreyer was an engineer. It is one thing to be on the outside lobbying and available to answer questions if the politicians think they need help; that’s where engineers are right now. It would be far better to have engineers on the inside, working to bring their knowledge and point of view into play, demonstrating that they do care about the public good. Engineering could change, but only if influential people, companies and organizations decide to do so. Or it could happen if a single Canadian engineering school decided to become the University of Waterloo of the early 21st century.

The University of Waterloo transformed itself into one of the most highly respected engineering schools in the country by pioneering co-op education. In effect, it told employers that if they hired a Waterloo graduate, they would get someone with real work experience as well as someone with strong computer skills. The university single-handedly changed the performance specs for engineers. Eventually, almost all universities came to offer variations of the co-op program.

Imagine what the profession would be like in the 21st century if one engineering school had the nerve to come up with new performance specs, to set a new standard by promising that its engineering graduates would be able to: a) combine technical and non-technical outlooks, attitudes and knowledge; b) understand and communicate beyond technical boundaries; c) and work effectively with the public and non-technical professionals.

To produce graduates capable of entering the political arena, however, will require even more fundamental change.

Keeping good employees

Whatever politicians and universities do or don’t do, engineering firms still need to find and keep good people. The best way is to let them find you. But changes in the last two decades will make it harder in the 21st century to have good people find you and stick with you.

First, successive waves of recession, downsizing and outsourcing have turned the single-employer career into a historical relic. Smart, computer-savvy engineers now have more career options. Technology also makes it easier for small engineering firms to compete effectively with large firms, or for engineers to take their skills out of engineering altogether. Holtforster believes ambitious young engineers should start with a big company, “learn a bit, and get the hell out.” Many of the students I talk to intend to follow that advice. Their career plans could mean more problems for engineering companies who want to keep good engineers.

The concept of a good place to work has also changed. Today, the best places prepare their employees for their next job.

Sandy Kemsley, P.Eng., is a founding partner of Toronto-based Metaconcepts, a systems integration company that specializes in services for the financial industry. Kemsley says “Metaconcepts’ biggest challenge is finding good people, not a shortage of work.” They want people who can “fit in with a varied team and work properly with clients.” The company is growing quickly and at last count there were 40 employees. One works solely on recruitment and retention. Standard company policy gives everyone four weeks of training a year. During this time, training is your full-time job, not something you pile on top of the rest of your work. Employees meet four times a year with a supervisor to discuss what they are currently doing, the kind of projects they would like to move into, and the skills and knowledge they want to build.

Here’s another example. After I interviewed him, John Boyd sent me an 18-page booklet called “Golder U: Investing in People: Course Calendar Fall 1999 to Spring 2000.” Golder U is Golder Associates’ primary internal vehicle for creating and delivering continuing education for its employees. The idea dates back to September 1997 and will grow and evolve. As the booklet states: “Golder U is a work in progress. We expect that our curriculum, at present consisting of six courses and four field camps, will improve and expand as our training and learning capability grows.”

Why is Golder investing in formal in-house training? Boyd explains. “For many years, we relied on having younger employees work with older employees, [expecting that] knowledge about what we do and expect [would] just rub off.” Many companies still rely on this process. But as Golder grew larger and larger, formal field school training became necessary. First, the company identified the need to ensure that all employees gathered, recorded and presented data in a uniform way. Things grew from there. Golder U is being adopted by all Golder operating companies worldwide. Other courses such as the business of engineering, risk management, communications and interpersonal skills have been added.

However, for every Metaconcepts or Golder U, there are many companies that don’t take ongoing training quite as seriously. About a year ago I casually asked a senior officer at a large engineering company about training. He rolled his eyes. “We just can’t get our engineers to take training. Our budget is always under-spent.” Surprised, I asked him if the engineers were given time off for further education or if they were expected to do the same amount of work while training. The engineer hesitated, said, “Well, uh…” and changed the subject.

How would you rate these three firms if you were looking for a job?

No matter where you are, you can do something about finding and keeping good people. In Saskatchewan an important part of the problem is keeping people in Saskatchewan. Engineers and engineering companies tend to move to larger bases in Alberta. As Dennis Paddock, P.Eng., executive director of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS), says, “Engineers leave Saskatchewan and come back to work in Saskatchewan from an Alberta base.” Two-thirds of the licenses to consult in Saskatchewan issued by APEGS in recent years were to out-of-province engineers. Through its universities, Saskatchewan supplies feedstock to out-of-province consulting firms. How very Canadian.

One way to start dealing with the problem is to get students hooked on Saskatchewan careers before they graduate. That is why a donor gave seed money to the University of Saskatchewan to create an independent, student-run corporation called Forefront Design. Engineering students submit ideas for services (the company started in web page design), or for a product that they will take at least to the prototype stage. Forefront hires the students with the best ideas. These students receive competitive pay to work full-time for a term on developing their ideas. The operation is still small, two to six students at a time. As Forefront president Heather Ross explains, “It gives you experience without losing your own money. You get the freedom to try new things. You learn how the process works, and it sure beats computer simulations.” She’ll graduate in the spring of 2000 and wants to own her own company eventually.

Finding and keeping good people also means changing the public’s perception of engineering. Professor Kim Vicente of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto does liaison work with schools. When he asked a grade seven class what they knew about engineers, a student replied, “Engineers are cold people who have a hard time communicating.” We joked about the response — the kid’s mom or dad must be a sociologist — but Vicente added seriously, “That’s the atmosphere in which I’m trying to say ‘Consider engineering as a career.'” Changing that atmosphere is a major challenge that the profession can’t tackle alone.

Researchers such as Rogerta Furger, contributing editor of PC World magazine and author of Does Jane
Compute? (New York: Warner Books, 1998), have shown that the image of computer and engineering careers as the domain of geeks turns adolescent girls away from math and science.

Does it matter what a seventh-grade kid thinks? And what about how a first-year engineering students feels? Professor Vicente also talked about studies that show students who drop out of engineering are not stupider than those who stay, they just have broader interests and little tolerance for narrow views of the world. Does it matter that capable people are dropping out of engineering? Does it matter that some engineering schools have excessively high first-year failure rates?

Paddock thinks that “one of the biggest [image] problems the profession has is the negative reaction to high failure rates, which in turn are due to low admission standards. [The people who flunk out] become lawyers and teachers who bad-mouth the profession.” The lesson here? What and how other people think is important.

Thinking how others think

For Barry Lester, P. Eng., vice-president and chief operating officer of Stantec in Calgary, one challenge looms above all others: “We have to understand how others think. It’s a core skill for managing engineering companies.” I’d add that it is a core skill for carving out any kind of successful career. Lester feels that we need to abandon the traditional approach of engineers who think only in terms of engineering and tendering advice with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

In an intensely cost-conscious world, “Clients have to get more bang for their buck.” This means that engineers must understand, respect and try to accommodate the pressures and constraints on clients. The best engineers understand the total picture, the broader context, not just the engineering component.”

Bruce Bodden realizes that “as clients [now] define needs, they don’t automatically think about engineers. They think about who can do the job. Clients are no longer looking to specific professions. They think more in terms of problems and solutions…. Now, people don’t automatically call engineering firms.” For Bodden, it means reconsidering who you are, what services you provide, and the abilities and sources of efficiency you offer. That’s how you open the door to a good survival strategy: providing more diverse value-added services.

Doug Ruth, P.Eng., dean of engineering at the University of Manitoba, brought up the same issue from a different vantage point. Having just returned from a two-day deans’ retreat, he realized he saw things differently from the way other deans saw them. “Engineers have to appreciate that everybody doesn’t think the same way. We tend to go for solutions. People in the arts spend more time on the questions. Solving problems isn’t enough for them. As engineers we have to spend more time asking: What is the problem? Should we be attacking the problem? As engineers we should be helping contribute to a workable society, and to do that we must be able to talk with many non-engineering groups who proceed to solutions differently than we do.” I wonder if he and his colleagues will do anything meaningful with that insight.

Philip Sutherland, P.Eng., president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia, is frustrated by the fact that engineers will not “get rid of the egalitarian idea that an engineer is an engineer is an engineer.” He sees a need to designate levels or areas of competence. After all, if you need brain surgery, you don’t want to go to a general practitioner. You rely on a system of training and licensing medical professionals that acknowledges differing levels of expertise. But when a doctor wants to get an engineer’s services, there is only one designation: P.Eng. Which system is more user-friendly, considerate and professional? Which profession appears to be interested in protecting the public and which seems to worship inertia?

E-mail and other mixed messages

Most engineers are interested in keeping up with new technology. No surprises there. But with information technology in particular, some of the biggest threats and opportunities are hard to spot.

Lloyd Kornelsen is a continuing education professor at the University of Winnipeg who also does conflict resolution consulting. He has found that increasingly conflict in the workplace can be traced to e-mail messages. Why? E-mail is an example of computer-mediated communications. Consider that in face-to-face communications, tone of voice carries 38% of the meaning that goes from sender to receiver, body language carries about 55% and the words themselves carry only about 7% of the message. When we move from face-to-face to e-mail, we’re retaining only 7% of a complete message.

E-mail is “fraught with minefields of misunderstanding” says Kornelsen. This is because of what is missing and because we have a “tendency to make assumptions and interpretations about the motives of others.” And the more stressed we are, the more we tend to pre-judge others in order to protect our own interests and self-image. Those who are trained to separate the technical from the non-technical, and to pay attention only to the former, will have particular difficulty dealing with the real impact of changes in communications technology. This is the paradox of modern information technology: what supposedly annihilates space and time, leaves us more isolated.

At Inco in Thompson, Manitoba, Cathy Stewart, P.Eng. has figured out what these changes mean for her and the consulting industry. Now that Inco’s engineering staff has been reduced by two-thirds, the company contracts out most of its engineering work to consultants. Inco engineers are more involved with managing projects than with their own designs and calculations. Project teams depend on e-mail and teleconferencing, but Cathy knows that it is not enough to have the right equipment. Inco wants to know from potential consultants exactly how they will fulfil their communications role as well as their technical role.

In their own ways Kornelsen and Stewart show that, more than ever, engineering depends on the proper mix of the technical and non-technical. Perhaps we need to go even further and forget about thinking in terms of a division between technical and non-technical. That kind of thinking is not only an anachronism, it’s dysfunctional in today’s world.

Gordon Williams, P.Geol., a vice-president at APEGGA, sums things up well. He sees the profession’s biggest challenge as “breaking out of the 1950s mentality,” which is “authoritarian and unrealistic.” We’ve got to stop expecting “everything to be nicely defined with closed, sharp edges.”

That means engineers must learn how others think. It means having cultural sensitivity in an age of globalization. It means political action to ensure that engineering concerns are represented when decisions are being made that affect engineers. It means offering employees a chance to grow. It means rethinking how we educate engineers. It means distinguishing between different levels of engineering expertise. These are the changes that will help engineering survive and prosper in the 21st century.

Norman R. Ball, Ph.D is director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.


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