Canadian Consulting Engineer

Young Professionals Forum

December 1, 2010
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

Recently consulting engineering companies seem to have woken up to the fact that the future depends on nurturing the talents of staff in their 30s and 40s. There's an excite-ment in the air about young people taking up the reins, and...

Recently consulting engineering companies seem to have woken up to the fact that the future depends on nurturing the talents of staff in their 30s and 40s. There’s an excite-ment in the air about young people taking up the reins, and engineering associations across the country are estab-lishing young professional groups, specifically to provide occasions for young people to meet for either social or educational events.

For our part, Canadian Consulting Engineer also hopes to engage more young professionals. We intend to publish more articles that speak to their concerns, we encourage their feedback, and we invite them to become regular subscribers.

With these goals in mind, hosted an on-line dis-cussion between six young professionals who work in the consulting engineering industry in Canada. Most of them are also heavily involved in their provincial young professional groups.

We asked them about what kinds of joys and fears they have experienced during their years in the industry so far.

Part II will be published in the January-February 2011 issue, at which time we will publish a complete transcript of the discussion on our website

Q. You have all been involved in consulting engineering for around 10 years or less. Did you intend to work in this industry when you left university? And are things turning out to be what you expected?

JAMES KAY: I wish I could say I knew what consulting engi-neering really was when I graduated from school. With-out knowing any better, it was a matter of hustling to get a job, preferably a good job, upon graduation. So you could say I fell into consulting engineering.

But it has been a phenomenal career choice for me. The challenge, the variety, the options to grow and develop and pursue areas of interest are really second to none.

GEOFF SARAZIN: One thing that I did not expect when I started working was how important the personal, client relations aspect of the job would be. It was something that was never brought up in school, and goes against the image of the bookish engineer. But a consulting engineer is selling services and therefore to be successful has to be a good salesman as well as a good engineer.

BRAD ROBINSON: I started working in the consulting field in high school, so my early work experience in this area is why I ultimately decided to go into engineering and con- tinue along this path. After finishing university, I had a wide variety of jobs but came back into the consulting field about six years ago, and I am convinced this was the right path for me.

I have to say I enjoy the fast pace and problem solving involved. The downside is probably dealing with the diffi- cult client. I’m sure there are not many jobs without downsides though.

I agree with Geoff’s comment about the personal rela- tionships with clients and being somewhat of a salesman. This is definitely not something that is taught in school, and it is probably the biggest challenge I face.

KIMBERLY MOWAT: I wasn’t even sure what engineering is, let alone what a consultant is! My career in consulting engi- neering pretty much fell into place. While completing my Master’s thesis, I was able to do some work on the side with my professor’s consulting company. One of their clients then offered me a job. I didn’t hesitate to take it, as I knew it was a good fit. I enjoyed helping clients to find solutions and I found that I thrive in a project- based working environment.

The thing I like the best about my experience is the entrepreneurial type spirit of the business. As a young professional, with today’s workplace demographics if you are self motivated, want more responsibility and want to progress in your career, there is nothing holding you back. There is so much opportunity that it seems like it is a perfect time to be in the business.

KRISTEL UNTERSCHULTZ: I genuinely believe that every opportunity is what I make it so I don’t think I came into this industry with firm expectations.

In my mind, though, the greatest benefit is the flexibility. I think that consulting, more than any other industry, allows me to drive my career. I get to choose how and where to develop my expertise and this extends beyond pure technical skills; it includes project management, leadership, and relationship building.

ALEX EYQUEM: Having done my university in France and then England, being a consultant was always on the cards. By the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to work for a consulting firm.

It is difficult to know what to expect when you start your career. You tend to have a black and white vision of your work and don’t yet know all the different aspects of the industry. For example, I would never have thought I would have to do as much finance, HR or PR.

Q. In your very first years in consulting engineering did you ever find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed on a project, lacking in terms of skills, training or computer resources? Or perhaps it was the opposite — did you sometimes feel you were being held back and not given enough responsibility?

BRAD ROBINSON: I think I felt a bit of both. Being young sometimes meant that you did not know what you did not know. In other words I did not have the experience to know that perhaps sometimes my assumptions or answers were wrong. At other times I felt like I was being held back because I was young.

Part of what attracts me to engineering is the problem solving. It seems like every problem is one that you have never come across before. The downside to this is the length of time it takes to build up examples you can draw upon to solve new problems.

Mentorship, if available, plays a big role in helping in this area. It was not until I had been in the consulting business for a while that I came across somebody who was willing to share the “rules of thumb” and pass along their experiences. It truly made a huge difference in helping me along. I only wish I had had this early on in my career.

ALEX EYQUEM: This is part of the rollercoaster ride of being in consulting engineering. I remember looking at a bridge assessment that I needed to do as my first assignment and asking myself how was I ever going to be able to do it on my own. Where should I start? I even wondered if I was in the right job.

You always feel that you are lacking the skills required at the start of your career, but this is normal.

Things became easier once I realized that I wasn’t supposed to have learned everything at school and that I was expected to be on a learning curve, albeit quite a steep one.

As for mentorship and resources, I would be lying if I said that I never complained about the lack of one or another. But there again, this eased when I understood that it was my responsibility to get that mentorship rather than waiting for it to be given to me.

Once you get the experience, and you have all the skills required, you quickly start feeling that you are not being used at your full potential. That was certainly the case for me, so I went to ask for more challenge, more responsibilities. Then the cycle started again …

KRISTEL UNTERSCHULTZ: I entered the consulting industry in 2005, just as the economy was really starting to boom, especially in Alberta. I vividly recall thinking that the volume of work coming through the door seemed nearly unmanageable. This, combined with a significant generation gap (there was a real lack of intermediate engineers with my previous employer during that period), meant that I was taking on a lot of responsibility early on. It was overwhelming and it soon became obvious that it was up to me to seek out mentorship and find the guidance I needed. For a while I
kept waiting for this grand “Aha” moment when I would suddenly consider myself experienced … as if once I had earned my stamp and lost that “EIT” behind my name, I would know everything. My confidence has grown since then and my learning may not be quite as intense now as in those first few years, but I’ve accepted that my “aha” moment may not be coming.

KIMBERLY MOWAT: Like any project based work, consulting is very up and down. You are either too busy or not busy enough. I was fortunate to get thrown into a number of projects right away in the typical sink or swim fashion.

I quickly found out that I did not learn very much in university, and there are many skills in consulting that formal training cannot provide. I definitely felt completely overwhelmed at times trying to learn the business, the technical, communication and management skills required of a consultant. And since every project is unique and my responsibilities grow every day, I haven’t stopped feeling overwhelmed in the five years I have been working!

I was fortunate to have a great mentor/boss who helped to guide me through the first few years. However, I was always pushed (by myself and by my managers) to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could. I can truly appreciate how much I have learned when I work with more junior engineers.

I find it challenging now, when the learning curve is starting to flatten out and it is more difficult to see that you are still improving. It can feel like a brick wall sometimes, but you just have to keep pushing through it.

GEOFF SARAZIN: I feel that I was given the right amount of responsibility in the first couple of years. I guess I would say that I was lucky enough to be in an office where the owners and engineers really invested their time in mentoring me and providing guidance, which benefited them down the road when I was able to handle more and more responsibility.

JAMES KAY: I think the group has really hit home on many of the key ideas here: that school prepares you for problem solving and pressure situations, but that you need to learn much of the situation-specific knowledge in your career; that this learning is ongoing and part of the challenge of being a consulting engineer; that education and experience are actually two entirely different things, and one is no substitute for the other. And I especially like the recognition that just because you have earned your P. Eng. designation, you don’t know everything, but you know how to use what you know, and presumably how to ask when you don’t.


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