Are CE’s Becoming IBMr’s ?

April 9, 2009 at 3:12 pm 4 comments

By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of

Prior to this current economic downturn a MAJOR topic of discussion was the lack of civil engineers in the marketplace.  It did not matter if I was executing a search for a Project Engineer who was an expert in hydrology & hydraulics and flood control, a Project Manager who understood advanced water treatment,  a National Program Manager with P3 or Design Build experience as it related to toll roads or a Land Development Department Head; no matter how you sliced it, the pool of civil engineers was shallow.   Engineers at all levels throughout the civil engineering community struggled with same dilemma.  They were working ridiculous amounts of hours, weekends included; their employers became stagnant in their  plans to diversify into other civil engineering disciplines;  and principal level engineers were rolling up their sleeves and cranking out construction plans themselves.  When the economy eventually picks up, the civil engineering community will  be treading in that shallow pool again wondering ‘where are we going to find the right engineer with the right experience?’

The other evening I was at home watching the NCAA Tournament and a commercial came across the television screen that caught my attention.  It was all about traffic and transportation and the technology that is being utilized to help ease traffic congestion, which would help cut down on fuel costs as well as free up more time for people all over the country.  The average commute time in most major cities across the United States, according to a Time Magazine report in 2007 is +/- 30 minutes. Many folks I know spend at least 45 minutes each way on their commute.  And if there happens to be an accident on the LBJ Freeway in Dallas or the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, well then you can just forget about getting to work on time or home for dinner.    Thank goodness for the hard working civil engineering consultants and DOT engineers who are putting in countless hours and lending their skills to help  make the necessary improvements to our transportation infrastructure that will help cut down our commute times and allow for us to do fun things like play with our children, spend time with our friends and families or be able to get to our softball game before the 4th inning…right?   But wait…this commercial I saw was not for a consulting engineering firm or a PSA type commercial from ASCE…it was is an IBM commercial. 



So, if I am a college student pursuing a degree in civil engineering and I want to specialize in transportation, you can be darn sure I am going to check out IBM.   To answer the question as to ‘where are all the civil engineers?,’  maybe they are all working at IBM.      Is it even possible to fathom the AECOM’s and URS’ and CH2M Hill’s of the world to advertise in this manner?  Are there opportunities for ASCE to advertise like this? Or are those avenues of advertising just a pipe dream for the traditional civil engineering community at large?


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Entry filed under: Civil Engineering Companies, Civil Engineering Issues, Civil Engineering Shortage, Human Resources, Marketing, Recruiting, Uncategorized, US Infrastructure. Tags: , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Robert Mote  |  April 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Great comments and great topic.

    In the past two generations of civil/structural engineers we have seen a loss of engineers to other discpilines and professions, notably computer-oriented. I resisted the numerous offers that came my way and stayed in civil/structural engineering. I focused on how to integrate quality into the way we work, not in the analysis but in the communication through our calculations. And it works!

    I believe we are profession that needs to step up a gear and think about how to produce quality calculations. I have seen the global slide into mediocrity and everybody shrugging their shoulders wondering what to do. We all have an individual responsibility to the future and we need to recognise it.

    Companies invest in designers and modellers as the big ticket items. Training of engineers is alomst non-existent, but it is critical for innovation, excitement, education and recruitment. Now is the time to train the engineers in new work processes.

    You talk about IBM, but modellers are already being trained to add loads to the structural model, to become ‘low-level’ engineers. Frightening stuff but happening.

    I believe engineers must lead the team and reclaim the important roles from project engineers and modellers. Calculations and computer proficiency are the key.

  • 2. J. Dunn, P.E.  |  April 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm


    Good post. It is truly a strange time and definitley bizarre how the civil engineering industry has changed in the last few years. I was one of those civil engineers who worked countless hours on private land development projects (including hydrology/hydraulics, drainage, roads, etc) and have rolled up my sleeves many times to get drawings finished and out the door. WELL, now I am on the street looking for a job. So much for civil engineering being a stable career (at least right now). I never thought I would have to deal with a layoff but it sneaked up on me and is reality.

    It is a difficult time, BUT it is a great time to diverisfy and use those broad skill sets I have learned to do something different (Fortunately I was with a company that did tend to let us ‘spread our wings’….but just a little). I am planning on possbily changing to a different industry (power, infrastructure) all together. One of the good things about civil engineers you forgot to mention- our discipline, in general, forces us to be a little broader than say electrical or mechanical engineers. Thanks for the post, I always enjoy reading them.

  • 3. Tim Klabunde  |  April 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I remember being surprised in November of 2007 when HP bought out EYP Mission Critical Facilities ( a design firm in DC that specializes in the design of data centers.
    I have also been watching major federal IT contracts being used as procurement vehicles for IT related building design projects. While I have not seen anything directly related to Civil Engineering, the design industry is changing and I have no doubt that better marketing is part of those changes.
    Thanks for the great post!

  • 4. Philip Miller, P.E.  |  April 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm


    IBM is advertising their “product” which is congestion charging systems – though their experience is more properly described as a prime contractor / systems integrator. IBM and PBS&J are both working on the San Francisco Congestion Charging study which is being wrapped up now. We have the planning engineers and experience in actually spec’ing out or operating tolls, and IBM has the congestion-charging experience from Stockholm.

    Of course, the primary point of your note is not that civil engineers are going to IBM (no, IBM is scooping up EEs and systems people, and their management consulting operation is using MBA-types), but that non-civil engineering companies are putting the sexy ads on TV. You ask, where are the CE firms with sexy TV ads?

    IBM is selling an image “we’re smart and our stuff works;” and image which they need to match their market position in IT and, frankly, the kind of fee structure they have. CE companies, even the largest ones, aren’t typically charging multi-million dollar fixed-fee prices for unique products. Our professional service firms compete in a diferent space – CE companies don’t need to advertise to the general public “we’re smart and our stuff works;” no, we just have to repond to RFPs with government forms and some text that suggests we actually read the clients’ prospective Scope of Work. ‘ don’t need TV advertising for that.

    IBM was advertising their image, not recruiting.

    We have all read and written many times about the shortcomings of the CE profession as a career choice, but we accept those shortcomings because the job stability is nice (like right now!) and we are not hated like lawyers and bankers.

    I don’t think the shortcomings need recounted here. In addition to the pay and career issues, there is the perception of civil engineering as a slow-moving, non-competitive vocation. This is not necessarily true, but our work does require a certain maturity to be able to watch a project develop over years, not days. In today’s cultural environment, these things are a tough sell – particularly without IBM’s kind of advertising budget.


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