Unhappy Civil Engineering Employees

March 30, 2010 at 5:49 pm 8 comments

By Carol A. Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC and

Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of CivilEngineeringCentral.com

Over the past several years, civil engineering employers were faced with dwindling backlogs, staff layoffs, benefit plan cuts and reductions in job fees. This year, those employers are now confronted with a “new” issue: unhappy staff.

The Charlotte Observer ran an AP article in January of this year. It cited study statistical findings:

…only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work. That was the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in more than 22 years of studying the issue.

In 2008, 49 percent reported satisfaction with their jobs.

The drop in workers’ happiness can be partly blamed on the worst recession since the 1930s, which made it difficult for some people to find challenging and suitable jobs.

The study suggests that even those fortunate enough to be employed are unhappy with their jobs. Employees under the age of 25 were the most unhappy, while those in the 25-34 age range were the most satisfied in their jobs. There were no stats for those in the over 34 age range.

Over the past 3 years I have spoken with numerous civil engineering employees who are unhappy with their employers. They report dissatisfaction with cuts in career opportunities, training, benefits and lack of team work. They resist looking for a job that may be more exciting and challenging.  They don’t want to be “last person hired, first person to go.” These employees would rather have a job and be unfulfilled, then risk being unemployed.

This sentiment is troublesome for employers. Unhappy employees are not only less productive, but studies show they are less creative and are poor performers. Their dissatisfaction can become like an epidemic infecting those around them. These staff often exhibit unethical behaviors and lose loyalty to the company. If managers don’t recognize destructive behaviors, then they will find themselves with projects that are overdue and over budget.

Employers must offer management training as well as other employee development programs. In the long run, these programs will be more cost effective then repairing the destruction of ongoing low employee morale.

For those unhappy civil engineering employees, last July’s blog: Civil Engineering Jobs – Will Any Job Do? discussed the importance of trying to improve your current situation. You need to take a shared responsibility for making your job or environment better just as your employer needs to step up!

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Entry filed under: Career Development, Civil Engineering Companies, Civil Engineering Jobs, Employee Retention, Human Resources, Recruiting, The Workplace.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark  |  April 15, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Every year of my career, throughout the industry, I have seen budgets tighten, schedules shrink, benefits diminish, and work demands increase. Employees are getting squeezed from every direction in the name of ‘productivity’. Everyday, employees are increasingly expected to put 10-pounds of stuff into 5-pound bags and work longer hours with less compensation. THAT is why employees are unhappy. It is also why, ironically, employees are less productive in the end.

    “Oh, you hate your job? …There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody and they meet at the bar.” – Drew Carey

  • 2. Robert Mote  |  April 6, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Nothing is forever. I come from the other side of career development. I train engineers to become engineering leaders. The engineers need to collaborate and I don’t mean through professional councils but simply together and brainstorm the future together. Say it, hey everybody I want to meet at lunchtime, I will buy the pizzas, let’s talk.

    In Holland, following 9/11, many of us were laid off overnight but a small group that survived we talked about how we could do something together just to keep our intellect challenged. This grassroot effort made me realise we have the power to design our future, if not today maybe tomorrow.

    In the UK, a few years later, I was on another megaproject which was downsized overnight. 90% laid off. Using the ideas I learn in Holland, I explained someone needed to archive the calculations and agreed to do that most awful job but I learned there was a better way. Brainstorming with the remaining engineers we turned the drudgery into a challenge. Five months later, the project was restarted successfully.

    Last year, in Northern Alberta, we laid off the site team overnight. I went tothe management and told them what they needed to know about shutdowns and how to restart them. I was kept on and I trained a small team to work like blazes for the restart. Nine months later, we restarted with minimum impact.

    No matter your role or experience, you are the leader of your future and there is so much to learn. We are forever between the past and the future and perennial job losses.

    These days, no one person in a company is going to have the vision or the mission to lead, train the engineers. Don’t wait for it. Employers are just as confused as employees. Engineers are indeed seen as a commodity so you have to make the difference. And you can do it by collaborating, you’d be very surprised what a team can do together.

  • 3. john harman  |  April 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Carol, thanks for the article. From 2007 to 2010, I was one of those unhappy employees under my supervisor from heck. He was an opinionated , micro manager. I was bluntly told there was no chance for a transfer to other groups. As the weeks passed, when every e-mail and or word was scrutinzed to the nth degree it just added to the pain. There was no reasonable way to appeal the treatment. Currently, I am sorry to be unemployed but glad to be out of that environment.

  • 4. C  |  April 1, 2010 at 10:02 am

    I think the commenters so far have missed the real issue – which the article hinted at but didn’t say. The real issue is that the companies are treating their engineers as commodities. Rather than sucking it up and taking a loss, and using any non-billable time for education, business development, or creative R&D so that they can do even better when the economy returns, the companies are so focused on making a profit each and every quarter that they are laying people off at the first hint of idle time. They are forgetting that, in A&E and other consulting disciplines, “the talent IS the product”. To wit — last summer, I was actually busy on an important project, but got laid off due to “low backlog”. Luckily for me, my customer and several within the company raised h#$l and I was (very sheepishly) called back the following Monday. What do you think that did for morale in my office???

  • 5. kjlink  |  April 1, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Its tough being positive and all, especially when there are so many crookedness in the workplace. You try to correct things, thinking you’re doing good for the company,but instead your efforts aren’t appreciated. hopefully, being an engineer, I could think of a different way around the obstacle.

  • 6. Brandon Lee  |  March 31, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I find it troubling that people aren’t willing to take a risk to better themselves. I have very little sympathy for those complaining about their job as if there is nothing one can do about the situation. Aren’t engineers trained to think of different ways to get around an obstacle?

    It’s too easy to blame the bad economy for any job related problems.

  • 7. Rick Farquar  |  March 30, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    I would imagine that the career misgivings are more to do with the economy and the fact that for the first time in my career, there are great candidates sitting at home.
    That will take the joy out of your life.
    There will always be a role for civil engineers. The infrastructure is shot and there are more people using it.
    The challenge will be developing creative forms of project development. The states are struggling but there are folks with an eye towards resolving problems who have a vision, the resources and they will have a need for you.
    That is if you are able to bend with the market.
    If you are not a consultant and if selling is not what you enjoy , then consulting is not the place for you. Work for the government.
    I am going to guess that if your job was secure, you were working on great projects and having fun, things would be a whole lot better. Hang in there.

  • 8. Anthony Fasano  |  March 30, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Carol thanks for this article. I agree 100%, when I speak on career development to engineers I always talk to those in the audience and many of them share the sentiments you describe in this article. This is the reason I am a HUGE proponent of career advancement opportunities for civil engineers and will continue to push training, coaching and leadership developments to all civil engineering firms. Thank You!


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