Back to the Boardroom: Engineering Leaders Are Returning to the Workplace

May 21, 2009 at 9:40 am 1 comment

By Carol Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC and
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of

The civil engineering market has seen the return of well respected senior executives.  Those who either retired, or semi-retired have been enticed away from the golf courses, lakes and tennis courts back into the boardroom.  Not that many of them had fully retired;  but, they had found a comfortable consulting medium which has now turned into a minimum of 40 hours. Why is this return happening in the numbers that it is occurring?

Last month I spoke with the CEO of one of my clients.  In 2007 I had assisted the firm on executive recruitment for their succession plan.  The CEO had planned his retirement in two years.  Last month he told me that he put off retirement for another year or two. He stills enjoys his work and is experiencing success with new avenues for his firm. He jokingly (with a tinge of seriousness)  said that after the stock market losses and engineering market downturn, he had virtually worked for “free” for the past year and a half.  This sentiment is a recurring theme with senior leaders.

Talking to several of these returning or non-retiring executives, I have seen several common themes:

1. They are fortunate to be healthy and energetic;
2. They had a history of success in building, leading, managing or cleaning up firms;
3. They are finding retirement not all they imagined it to be;
4. They love the engineering business and when called upon to “fix” something that needs repair, they can’t resist;
5. They have the expertise in technical areas that had been dormant and are now in the forefront of the industry;
6. They enjoy their work.

These execs are making changes in their firms in many important ways. For example, with technological advances such as SKYPE and other avenues for “virtual meetings,” many executives tried to minimize busy travel schedules by cutting in person regional office visits.  This meant that they were less available to staff, less visible. Employees of “Best Firms” stress the importance of feeling valued and known by company leaders.  Accessibility to these leaders is of paramount importance to them.  Returning executives understand this and several have re-established travel to branch offices – they are bringing back the “TOWN HALL” meetings!  While industry morale has been lower than in past years,  the increase in potential opportunity is pulling companies up by their boot straps. To compete for work, companies need involved and committed staff. These smart executives can teach future leaders a few things. Connecting with employees in person, who are the heart of the company, is never a bad thing.

For whatever reason engineering leaders are returning, or postponing leaving…let’s learn from them.  They have survived past recessions, lawsuits, bad press and staff shortages. While the industry is changing, some aspects of running an engineering consulting practice has not, or maybe should not.  Let’s take advantage of mentors and pay attention, learn while we still can!

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Entry filed under: Civil Engineering Companies, Employee Retention, Human Resources, The Workplace.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Leighsah Jones  |  May 30, 2009 at 4:02 am

    I absolutely believe the stereotypical idea of a complete retirement is gone and will never come back.

    There are a number of reasons for this, the economy being a major one, but also, we are living decades past 65 and these are healthy years for the most part. Are golf and tennis really going to look so good six months after you leave the workforce? Is that really all you are going to do with the last 20 years of your life?

    I think retirement will be a decrease in working, but when we do retire, it will later, perhaps retiring in our late 60s or early 70s and then transitioning to part-time volunteer or consulting positions in the community. We’ll be an adviser to the construction committee at our church. We’ll mentor the math club at the middle school. We’ll volunteer for Engineers Without Borders. We’ll mentor at SCORE, SWE, ASCE and other organizations that need leaders that are willing to share their knowledge.

    I believe the idea that people will just leave the workforce will leave a horrendous vacuum of knowledge that Gen X will not be able to fill for no other reason other than there aren’t anywhere near enough of us. The retiring baby boomers are a huge number of folks whose collective knowledge will be greatly missed.

    Retire? Perhaps that just means the “retirees” only come in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Because otherwise I think we’re going to be in for a world of hurt.


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