How to Make the “Age Issue” a “Non-Issue” When Searching for a New Civil Engineering Job

December 5, 2012 at 10:43 am 7 comments

George Burns

Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old; I’m working. I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young. When I’m in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age.” – George Burns

So last week I authored a blog titled, “From Civil Engineer to…,” which discussed some of the different careers civil engineering professionals have transitioned into as a result of being laid off in the midst of this recession.  We posted this blog on dozens of LinkedIn discussion boards that generated some lively conversation and we learned of a number of folks who are now doing something new.  For those that have been able to find an opportunity again within the profession, we uncovered that many of them are making less than they were prior to being laid off.  But a reoccurring theme within those discussions came from those engineers with 35+ years of experience; they are frustrated with what they see as age discrimination, and as a result are not being hired…or even considered for hire.  I am not here to fight the age discrimination battle as I have no desire to, nor do I have the credentials.  But I would like to use this opportunity to challenge those who are 55+ (and those who are on their way)  to help them become more marketable so that any thought of age discrimination is thrown out the window.   Here is a sampling of some of the comments that I extracted from the elder statesmen of the civil engineering community on the discussion boards:

“It seems like such a waste that the industry has tossed so many engineers and lost a generation of knowledge and mentoring. On a more personal level, I am frustrated, feeling that two educations are not being used and that I have lost some prime earning years. “We” have always been told get a science degree or two and it will be OK, you will always be employed and live the dream. Well, that isn’t true.”

“I haven’t gone anywhere…..I am still here, water and wastewater consulting experience of 30+ years. Trying to sell my services as a sole proprietor to prospective clients, or as an experienced client manager to professional services firms is about as rewarding as selling refrigerators to Eskimos”

“However, as is obtained nowadays employers are increasingly bypassing more experienced civil engineers for younger just out of school candidates and expecting them to do senior /experienced engineer work only because they fear they can’t pay more highly experienced engineers. However they should not fear experience;”

“I am presently working with a group of seasoned professionals that can handle just about any problem with little direction. What a difference in the caliber of design product! The client knows and appreciates that quality and I am confident they will continue to use our service. Managers should be aware of the value of that quality and the little comparative cost difference as a percentage of the entire project, it represents. “

“Companies were happy to have me a few years ago, but the work seems to have dried up now I have turned 60”

“Maybe its time to start a consultancy employing only over 60s…and show the kids we’ve still got it!”

As most of you know, I have made a career out of recruiting civil engineering professionals, and these same frustrations are often conveyed to me by those professionals in the 55+ crowd.  That said, I have also been successful in placing professionals who merely based upon their graduation dates or the gray hair on their head may be considered to be “over the hill.”    Here are some of the single traits that I have found that makes these “silver-haired” experts look “platinum” :

PLATINUM:  They take good care of themselves physically and still find time exercise on a regular basis.  When they arrive for meetings they still wear a suit…with a tie.
SILVER:  They have “let themselves go” and believe that their breadth of experience is all that matters.
POINT BEING:  Looks and presentation do  matter, and first impressions are often, well, first impressions.

PLATINUM:  They have somehow found a way to keep that “fire” burning in their belly.  They continue to search for creative solutions and opportunities to differentiate themselves, and their companies, from the competition.
SILVER:  They are stuck in their old ways and believe if something worked just fine a decade ago it will work fine today.  They are looking to ride slowly off into the sunset.
POINT BEING:  Companies and clients want innovation; they want someone who is continuously looking for ways to make things even better. They want people who enjoy taking on challenges and have the continued desire to learn and grow.

PLATINUM:  They are very active in their local and national associations.  That is, they seek out opportunities to present to their professional community, and when given those opportunities they are engaging and memorable.  They keep up with their network and with networking…in good times and in bad.
SILVER:  They limit their professional interaction to those that surround them in the office and at client meetings.
POINT BEING:  You’ve heard of old adage, “location, location, location,” right?  Same concept.

PLATINUM:  They are flexible.  That is, they are open to relocation, travel, or TDY.
SILVER:  9-5, no longer than a 30 minute commute, not willing to travel.
POINT BEING:  The more flexible you are, the more opportunities exist.

PLATINUM: They have become experts in niche services (i.e. rail/transit, tunneling, process engineering, long-span bridge, ITS, green infrastructure, etc) that are subsets of a broader industry focus.  They have mastered the art of Project Execution Delivery / Program Management / Operations / Business Development.
SILVER:  They continue to hold Project Manager roles on bread-and-butter projects.
POINT BEING:  Do you know how many Land Development Project Managers there are?

PLATINUM:  They are mentors; and memorable and effective ones at that.
SILVER:  Focuses purely on themselves.
POINT BEING:   People you mentor will remember you when opportunities arise.  Business owners will hire you to mentor their younger staff so they can more on driving sales.  Companies will hire you to fill the gap between the existing aging leadership and the next generation of leaders. Catch my drift?

PLATINUM:  They have found / earned their way into larger and higher profile projects which increase their industry exposure…and they have experienced success.
SILVER:  They are constantly content and show no desire to grow or be challenged.
POINT BEING:  Are you a tortoise running a marathon, or are you a rabbit looking for the next sprinting race? And if you are the tortoise in the marathon, are you willing to turn on the after-burners from time-to-time?

It’s no secret that there are plenty of companies out there who shy away from hiring those professionals with “too much experience (wink, wink).”  And for or many companies, there are valid reasons why they are not willing to hire someone with 35+ years of experience.   No matter what the perception or reality may or may not be on this topic, my desire is to share some of my insight that comes from nearly 16 years of experience in recruiting AEC professionals.  With all the “platinum” and “silver” in this blog, my hope is that I have provided you with a little nugget of GOLD that may make a difference for you or someone you know.

And in line with  the quote at the beginning of this blog, may vitality sweep over YOU and may potential employers forget about YOUR age.

Comments and lively discussion  always welcome.

Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search, Inc
Managing Partner,
View Matt’s profile & connect with him on LinkedIn

civil engineering jobs :: civil engineering resumes :: civil engineering blog :: civil engineering discussion


Entry filed under: Career Development, Civil Engineering, civil engineering blog, Civil Engineering Issues, Civil Engineering Jobs, Fun Stuff, Human Resources, The U.S. Economy & Civil Engineering, The Workplace, Uncategorized.

From Civil Engineer to… Civil Engineering Firms Stretched Thin

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kumar  |  December 14, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Hey Guys, my name is Kumar. I am a recent graduate with a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering specializing in Structural Engineering from Iowa State University. Now I am not sure how the recession influenced civil engineers or as a matter of fact people of other profession as I arrived in United States in year 2010 and also am very young to get exposed to other forms of unemployment.

    But right now I am trying very hard to get a job opportunity in Civil/Structural Engineering stream for the past one year and I have to tell you that things are looking very grim and slowly the light at the end of the tunnel is closing up. Now I do not want to be economically broke having come to United States with the prime ambition of achieving a happy and a prosperous career in Civil Engineering because of the current job market. This is the main reason why whether its old or young, they are made to change their profession since money has become the first priority rather than the career that you worked so hard for the past 6-7 years.

    Now one might say that all the civil engineers are vanishing and are changing profession but the main cause behind that effect is that’s their only choice that is available for them and are unwillingly taking it as that’s the one which is going to feed them and their children later.

    Even now having a Masters degree in Civil Engineering and coming from a teir-1 ABET accredited University like Iowa State University, I am losing hope every day as it passes by. When I created a profile on job search sites like Dice, Monster or CareerBuilder, I am being contacted by IT consulting firms rather than a Civil Engineering firm almost every time. If this way isn’t the right way to reach 100s or 1000s of Civil Engineering recruiters out there, “what is it then ?” I asked myself.

    The only other way I can get in touch with Civil Engineering companies is through career fairs which happen twice every year in my university and I always look forward to them. I have been trying to get a job through that but I have to tell you, I attended all five career fairs in these past two and half years but not one has been successful. Lot of recruiters from various firms come for the career fair, talk to many students and everyone has an equal chance of getting the job as me. Telling that myself I attend these conventions and try to sell myself being at my best behavior technically and socially. I get a few interviews scheduled with utmost luck but I was not able to get the final piece of the puzzle which is getting the job offer.

    Now I am pretty sure there are thousands of students who are in my shoes who are ready to change their profession not because of money, interest or career but because they are not able to get into their determined career path at all, not once.

    Please people with power and also those who are concerned about old people who are changing profession, give a glance on what’s happening to the younger generation. We are willing to work ten times more and also with devotion and love towards our profession but our chances of getting our first job are so slim that we are made to change profession at such a young age. I beg of you, as you are the ones who have the upper hand here and can change our lives and we can influence the next generations with the same change.

    I am very sorry and humble if I have offended anyone in writing this comment.

    Thank you

    • 2. FatSquirrel  |  December 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Hi Kumar,

      I did some research on just who is out there looking for entry-level CE jobs. Having an MS with an EIT and experience (internship or otherwise) puts you in a good position. However, firms don’t need to hire someone that would need to relocate, and almost half of those applying for these jobs need to. There were about 40 applicants for the job posting, and only 21 of them lived within commuting distance.

  • 3. dianekinman  |  December 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    As a freelance Business Development consultant, one thing I’ve found that makes me stand out to my clients is that I’ve kept up on technology. Visit electronics stores, read articles, learn about the latest software. I love that I have an O&M manual on iBooks on my iPhone. I was one of the first to include a QR code on the back of my business card that, when scanned, linked directly to my LinkedIn profile. It was simple and free, yet signifies that I’m open to new ways to do things. Plus I have 30 years of experience to draw from. Great article!

  • 4. Bill Schipske  |  December 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    great nuggets! i see myself somewhat platinum/silver. i’ve traveled all the way to afghanistan to work for the last two years. i’m trying to find my way back to the states. it’s pretty hard to gain traction or attention. being willing to take a couple of steps back is no hardship. having that 30+ year experience immediately sends a negative signal. Being an engineer makes it difficult to blow smoke or gift wrap a steady career of competency. honestly recruiters ignore us too. what i’m looking for is an honest evaluation. if i apply for a job that’s below my talent curve, how about looking at my experience as a plus. i’m aware of what the position requires.

    • 5. aepcentral  |  December 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing your thoughts! If you have a solid resume, a good recruiter would take the time to speak with you, learn of your motiviation and continued ambition, and then sell the hiring manager. The problem with hiring someone who is over qualified for a position is that often times that person uses that job as a stop-gap and will jump on the next opportunity that comes along that better suits their level of experience, which ultimately leads the employer back to square one. Thanks again for sharing!

  • 6. FatSquirrel  |  December 6, 2012 at 12:29 am

    The onus seems to be on the older worker to adapt to the employer’s attitude towards his age, rather than the employer thinking about what diversity really means–not using prejudice as a means of weeding out applicants.

    As a recent graduate, career changer, I’ve had a difficult time trying to convince engineering firms that, I too, can work the long hours of a 20-something. 40 is NOT too old to be an entry-level civil engineer, yet when I get to the interview stage, the hiring managers seem to think that I am some kind of strange creature who would only hurt their company culture.

    • 7. aepcentral  |  December 6, 2012 at 8:02 am

      Hi Shawn,

      Good morning, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would agree that employers need to be a little more flexible, the goal of this blog was to try and give the “older crowd” some insight as to how to make themselves more marketable. There are indeed plenty of advantages of hiring a more experienced engineer for sure; In fact, please take a look at an earlier entry on our blog discussing this very topic! Here it is: . Again, thanks for reading and sharing, we appreciate it!


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