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Talent War

A shortage of seasoned engineers and skilled workers has firms fighting to keep their best and brightest

Posted on September 24, 2012
Written by Julie Stauffer


If you’re a consulting engineer with a few years of experience under your belt, chances are you’ve been wooed by a headhunter more than once. At Morrison Hershfield, Pelly Shafto estimates his qualified employees field an average of three to four calls a week from recruiters eager to lure them away.

“The demand outstrips the supply,” says Shafto, VP of human resources and organizational development at the mid-sized firm.

With qualified people in short supply across the country, job postings attract few candidates. Anyone with the necessary skills and experience already has a job, so companies resort to poaching from their competitors to get the talent they need.

Part of the blame for the shortfall in talent lies in demographics: the all-too-familiar story of too many boomers poised to retire and too few gen-Xers and -Ys to fill their shoes. Add to that the fact that many companies stopped hiring during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, while the subsequent dot-com bubble saw many new grads seduced by the lucrative salaries in high tech.

The result is an industry-wide lack of engineers and skilled workers with 5 to 15 years of experience: people with the communications and management expertise, as well as the technical capabilities, to hit the ground running.

“Those are tough holes to fill,” says John Gamble, president of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Canada. “It’s the question of people who can take leadership roles.”

The global upswing in the mining and energy sectors has also contributed to the problem. Faced with the same demographic realities and scrambling to meet demand from China, India, Russia, and Brazil, companies are using very attractive compensation packages to lure engineers and skilled workers from other sectors.

“They can literally throw money at people,” says Shafto. “You can make 30 to 50 per cent more from a one or two-year contract with an oil and gas company, so it’s very tempting.”

No surprise, then, that consulting engineering firms are cranking up their recruiting efforts. Just how actively are they working to find the people they need? “On a scale of one to 10, we’re a 10,” says Hal Lewis, Stantec’s regional VP for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. As well as relying on a full-time team of internal recruiters, Lewis estimates that 10 to 20 per cent of his workload revolves around trying to fill vacant positions.

At the same time, there’s no shortage of projects. A 2011 report from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association pegs the cost of meeting the country’s urban infrastructure needs at $44 billion to $125 billion. Alberta alone is attracting 80,000 new people a year, all of whom need electricity, roads, and clean drinking water.

So who is going to do that work? The statistics paint a grim picture.

In its Labour Market Forecasts, Engineers Canada predicts a national shortfall in civil engineers in 2013. Recruiting firm Randstad Canada reports that demand for candidates in engineering and construction has jumped 18.34 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 compared to a year ago. “As the sector surges, skilled workers will become harder to find,” predicts Mike Winterfield, president of Randstad Professionals.

Construction employment has hit an all-time high, according to the Construction Council Canada, and earlier this year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce listed a “desperate” skilled labour shortage as one of the country’s top ten barriers to competitiveness.

“Everybody is experiencing similar gaps in the workforce,” says Sheldon Hudson, president of Consulting Engineers of Alberta and VP of Al-Terra Engineering.

As a result, energy and mining companies poach people from other sectors. Bigger, better-paying engineering firms lure staff from smaller firms. Employers in white-hot job markets like Alberta tap talent from other provinces.

Everyone has polished their recruiting pitches. In a province dominated by remote oil sands jobs, for instance, Hudson likes to promote the fact that his firm’s offices are located in urban centres, where employees can return home to their families every night.

Lewis emphasizes the excitement and opportunities that Stantec offers, as well as the outdoor recreation opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Shafto, meanwhile, focuses on a positive, supportive working environment.

Of course, finding qualified people is only half the problem. The other half is retention: hanging onto employees inundated by other job offers. “We need to focus on the things that keep people engaged,” says Shafto. He ticks off the crucial factors: challenging projects, recognition for work well done, a competitive salary and, above all, good rapport with their manager.

That’s all well and good for individual firms, but headhunting and retention strategies do little to address an industry-wide issue of lack of capacity that may ultimately limit how many infrastructure projects can go ahead.

“At the end of the day, we want to deliver a good product to the client,” says Lewis. “At times, that may mean turning down work so that we can deliver to our existing client load.”

Hudson agrees. “As the workload increases, firms become more selective about the projects they take on,” he explains. He calls for changes in the current procurement system: the need for contracts that share risk more fairly and policies that award projects to the best-qualified firm, not the lowest bidder.

But consulting engineers are a resilient bunch, accustomed to dealing with challenges, and the current talent shortage is just one more problem to solve.

Many are looking beyond Canada’s borders to find the people they need. A few years ago, for example, several consulting engineering firms in Alberta launched a joint campaign to attract talent from the United Kingdom, resulting in several dozen new hires.

But overseas recruiting is expensive, and engineering and technology skills are in short supply globally. ManpowerGroup’s 2012 survey found that 34 per cent of employees around the world have difficulty filling positions. Skilled trades and engineering positions ranked among the top three most challenging to fill.

Even when companies find overseas candidates, there can be hurdles to getting their credentials recognized here at home. Employers encounter similar problems when it comes to tapping the pool of skilled immigrants in Canada (see “Tapping Canada’s Global Talent Pool,” page 17).

In 2007, the federal government launched the Foreign Credentials Referral Office to help resolve the problem, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “We need to be much more creative in how we go internationally for talent, how we integrate them in, and how we invest in people,” Shafto suggests.

Many firms are filling the middle-manager shortfall by fast-tracking promising younger people or encouraging employees in their 60s and 70s to continue working.

Another strategy is to do more with fewer managers—one of the factors behind the recent wave of mergers and acquisitions within the consulting engineering world.

Finally, although attracting more young people to the field of engineering and technology won’t solve the short-term problem, it will prevent an acute shortage in the future.

Engineers Canada reports an encouraging increase in enrolment in undergraduate and graduate programs, although Gamble says the consulting engineering sector has to do a better job of educating those students about opportunities in the industry.

“A few years ago we discovered, much to our disappointment, there was very little awareness of what consulting engineers did,” he says. “We discovered that there was a perception that consulting engineering is basically what students thought professors did in their spare time.”

To address that problem, the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Canada has launched an awareness program called Engineering Legacies.

Firms also have to be willing to train new grads, despite the risk a competitor may swoop in and snatch them away just as your investment starts to pay off. According to Gamble, the long-term sustainability of the industry depends on attracting young engineers.

“I think that it’s very important that we learn the lessons of the 90s, where we failed to bring people into the industry,” he says. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the same demographic hole 20 years from now.”

Julie Stauffer is an award-winning writer and the owner of Cadmium Red Communications in Guelph, Ontario.

7 Responses to “Talent War”

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    Anonymous Engineer says:

    Oh brother, not more bullshit about skilled worker shortage, engineer shortage, blah blah blah….
    Explain why there’s thousands upon thousands of unemployed engineers genius!

  2. administrator says:

    The issue is actually more that seasoned, skilled engineers are in demand, not that there is a country-wide shortage. Firms are having trouble retaining their best and brightest.

  3. John Gamble says:

    It is worth noting that the shortage of engineers is not across the board. But there are specific disciplines that are in relatively higher demand than others. Employers are also seeking non-technical skills such as communications and seeking specific demographics to fill leadership roles. Any one of these criteria could be challenging, let alone looking for someone that satisfies two or all three.

    In the case of demographics, only 7% of active engineers are between 41 and 50 years of age. This reflects the significant layoffs, the drop in hiring and the resultant decrease of enrollment in engineering programs that occurred during the recession of the early 90’s. This is a key demographic group from which firms now would hope to find leaders and successors.

    Looking forward, I would certainly encourage employers to continue to invest in young engineers and their careers that we don’t find ourselves with a similar demographic shortfall twenty years from now.

  4. Consulting Engineer says:

    I have to agree with Anonymous Engineer. CEO, PEO and others have cried shortage of skilled resources and engineers for over 20 years (I’ve been in the consulting industry for almost 25 years). By and large there still exists a significant lack of opportunities for engineers domestically. Competition for work is global and fierce. Prices for eingineering fees are ridiculously low and everyone, consultants and clients have to share the blame for the underselling. Everytime I submit a proposal there are 15 to 25 firms also submitting so I find it abhorrent for people to say that there is too much work forcing firms to turn down projects. If a firm is not submitting on a project I can guarantee you it’s not because there is too much work! Canadian firms are shipping work overseas to capitalize on cheap labour rates just to get their prices down and win project work. We’re not like the lawyers that have made laws so complex that they can command two to three times the hourly rate of an engineer!!! Pleeeeease!!!!

  5. Consulting Engineer says:

    Case in point…read “Deal Flow P3″ article by Brad Watson for contradictions with this article

  6. Consulting Engineer says:

    Honestly maybe if salaries were higher and more opportunities available for the bright and talented more people would enter into the engineering profession. I always thought a shift in the supply vs. demand equation would help boost low salaries in the engineering profession. It’s a global problem and we truly are underselling ourselves to keep busy and meet financial expectations of employers.

    Kudos to Pelly Shafto for highlighting the crucial retention factors, something that has been lacking in many firms for years.

  7. Consulting turned Public says:

    Consulting firms have trouble keeping their best because they don’t raise salaries quickly enough for the inhouse “grown” engineers, taking them for granted. Same can be said for the challenges offered to a “maturing” engineer. Thus, the best, and sometimes only, way to obtain a subsantial raise is to switch to a competitor. Ask to anybody who switched. A good model is to switch and come back home for a double raise, I’ve seen these turnarounds lasting anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years and was offered the same after 2 months. By nature, most engineers are hard workers and low complainers. Just look around yourself, you’ll see that the engineers going up the ladder have a knack to sell themselves other than just being very good technically. Sometimes the best way to be noticed is to disappear for a while!

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