The Ramifications of Ousting the Senior Engineer

June 9, 2010 at 8:42 pm 9 comments

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

As discussed in a previous blog, civil engineering firms are cutting senior staff in favor of hiring less experienced, less expensive technologically savvy engineers. The blog received a variety of comments. Among them was insightful feedback from Principal Civil Engineer Mike Prett, PE. With permission, his comments are reprinted here:

The deeper I get into this business (I’m about 14 years in and in my late thirties) the more I see how invaluable the senior staff is for mentoring, senior oversight, project and program management and client contact/marketing.

I agree that you need tech savvy youth to keep production moving and certain “buzz” type certifications such as LEED and PMP are important in today’s marketplace, but not at the expense of a companies senior staff. (Since I’m smack in the middle I feel like my opinion is pretty un-biased, although I realize no opinion is completely un-biased)

I feel like we are losing site of the fact that civil engineering used to be an apprenticeship-based career and is experienced based after completing the minimum competency requirements of ones bachelors and PE. Typically one starts in design, learns the ropes, gets some certifications, moves into managing small projects has some successes and some failures and so-on. Eventually when you start managing large jobs and programs, some of the fancy computer models you used to say model a water system, do a structural analysis, or run some earthwork aren’t the tools you need as a senior employee. At that point the focus is different. One should be using accounting software, analyzing schedules and building complex PMIS systems. One at that point is focusing on developing staff, keeping clients happy, understanding higher level market trends, management techniques and business development strategies, while still keeping a pretty good understanding of what your more technically based and entry level employees are doing.

I feel pretty strongly there are no short cuts. Hand a $300M CIP project or program to someone with three years of experience to run and I’m guessing it’s headed for catastrophic failure. I don’t really feel that the adage “young and tech savvy” replaces “old and worn out” in our business applies as much in our career as many others. (e.g. high-tech or pharmaceutical sales for instance). All levels in our business can add value if properly utilized.

Mike’s comment about civil engineering’s history as an apprentice based career are on point. When did that practice change? What types of mentoring programs are companies implementing to help staff earn PEs, learn project management, client development and maintenance? With benefit cuts, training programs have been put on a back burner. Now mentors find themselves tossed aside.

Those firms that view senior engineering cuts as an answer to a problem – as a short term fix, will find the long term problems to be costly. When the economy picks up many less experienced engineers who have been without a mentor will leave to join a firm that values the mentor/mentee relationship.  They will find that their lack of training will hinder their ability to progress in their career. Companies who have cut senior staff will find themselves with limited senior leadership. And, as Mike suggested, projects may run the risk of engineering failures.

Should civil engineering companies reinvent themselves in regards to staff during this difficult market? How do you think the ousting of the senior engineer will impact the industry?

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Civil Engineering Salary Cuts and Layoffs Continue Civil Engineering “Cash Cab”

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matthew Shepherdson  |  April 8, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I don’t agree in the longterm w/ the assertion “that civil engineering used to be an apprenticeship-based career” — currently, I believe that’s true. However, as Mr. Prett illustrated, those firms who gutted their senior engineering staff will end up making costly mistakes, which will hurt their professional reputations. Ultimately, they will lose enough business to close, bought out by more successful firms, or shrink considerably (the sum effect is their cost-cutting mentality will lose footprint in the civil engineering marketplace). On the other hand, firms that have continued to realize the need for extensive experience and good mentoring will survive the recession and thrive in recovery. I may be wrong, but my guess is most of the successful firms will be smaller firms like the two firms I’ve worked for, where junior engineers interact directly with senior engineers and where no massive bureaucracy exists which only cares about cost and not about cerebral capital (the accumulated experience of a firm’s senior engineers).

  • 2. Matthew Shepherdson  |  December 1, 2010 at 6:56 am

    I think many of the newly promoted junior engineers will eventually realize the mistake of this shortsighted “cost cutting.” (Quotations added because senior-level layoffs don’t account for the cost of removing senior engineers’ expertise from engineering firms.) Once that happens, the new senior engineers will at least rehire their former mentors as consultants in order to fill holes in knowledge on certain complicated projects.

  • 3. Quoc Le  |  October 25, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Laid off Senior Engineers can start their own firms.

  • 4. Matt Severson, PE  |  July 8, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Mike’s comments are spot on! In answer to Carol’s question about when did we change from an apprenticed based career I’d have to say it started in the late 80’s / early 90’s when ASCE began pushing the Masters requirement to obtain your PE. This was compounded by the consolidation of the consulting engineering business that continues to this day which has put many engineering related business decisions into the hands of non-engineers.

    I’m not saying a Master’s degree is not important but I do take exception to the idea it is a minimum requirement to be an engineer. I believe the basis of this Master’s requirement is to model our profession after the law profession to provide greater prestige and higher salaries. The actual implementation couldn’t be further from the truth. Much of our work is tied to the public sector work which by nature limits our earning potential. Also, I’ve heard concerns from a number of engineering students who fear the Masters requirement will be implemented before they graduate and they will be unable to afford the additional tuition.

    I do believe a Master’s degree can benefit the engineer in the long run; however, not in the fashion it is currently proposed which emphasises acheiving it before really having an understanding of the profession and what you want to do with your career. Also, some of the best engineers I know have earned MBA’s later in their career to help them lead staff and offices into the future.

    In closing, I beleive our over reliance on formal education is what’s doing the most harm to the profession. Employers have cut back on their continuing education/apprentice programs as a result. I’ll take an engineer with “hands on” experience any day over the book educated engineer

  • 5. William Meyer  |  June 29, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Speaking as a 50+ year-old civil engineer laid off last December, as a result of mergers, poor economy, and a refocusing of company objectives that eliminated my position, I have three general comments. First, every layoff is based on a need to cut costs relative to anticipated productivity toward company goals. That may be humbling for us who have been laid off, but it is a fact to face. That is not to say that such a laid off person is a poor engineer or employee – I received nothing but affirmations of my capabilities. They just didn’t fit work load and company goals and I would have laid an equivalent of me off too, had I been in management at that firm.

    Second, senior engineers but especially those in a design role, absolutely must keep current with technologies, software, and the myriad other changes in our exciting profession. Five years ago I was challenged, by one of the younger engineers in the department I managed at the time, to do conceptual design layouts using CAD rather than pencil. She said it was as fast, and more readily adopted into final design. I took her up on it – became sufficiently proficient in AutoCAD to demonstrate that she was absolutely correct. I have recently started my own firm and use the latest and greatest 3D design software. My clients deserve nothing less.

    Third, if the laid off senior civil engineers have been effective, they will have clients that wish to work with them and are in an excellent position to start their own firms. A small firm can operate much more efficiently than one with more internal infrastructure. That, along with technical strengths and professional integrity, will fit very well with clients who must do more with lower budgets.

  • 6. Jonathan  |  June 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    It’s a tough market for everyone right now but whether 25 or 55, an engineer that keeps up skills and works hard deserves the same consideration. Age should not be the determining factor.

  • 7. Herbert Martinez  |  June 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I concurr with Carol and Mike. I hade the same conception that Civil Engineering is/was “an apprenticeship-based career and is experienced “. I’m turning 33 soon and I feel caught in the middle. I started to work in the industry, when I was 17 years old, as a chainman. Pay my undergrad working as surveyor, lab technician, field technician, draftman, etc
    Got my first job as a designer and later worked overseas(England & Latin America) as a project engineer. I took the P.E too.
    Although, after being Unemployed, full time, for 13 months. 3367 application later,17 responses and 8 interview later.
    As today, I wonder. What the heck is going on?

  • 8. Matthew Shepherdson, EIT  |  June 10, 2010 at 7:24 am

    I’m working on assembling a construction industry networking group as I anticipated being laid off from my census job, but not sure how much hope to derive from a bunch of contacts who were also laid off from the industry.

  • 9. Matthew Shepherdson, EIT  |  June 10, 2010 at 7:22 am

    I can relate as someone seeking a good mentor, which I had at my first job in ’05-’08 designing wood-framed housing. I interviewed for my second & the owner I expected to be a good mentor. Appearances were deceiving & I was out the door in 6 mos. Now I’m wondering if I picked the wrong degree to pursue.


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