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Turnkey Redefined

Engineering and construction firms adapt to a changing market.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2011

majority of our needs can be met in house, through our own capabilities.

Oskvig, Black & Veatch: We’re seeing a pinch point in the mid-range experience level. We can bring in the top end pretty easily and directly, and it’s easy to bring in new grads. But there’s the precious middle layer we’re all competing for. That’s the real limiter to growth for us.

The tightest pinch points are for mechanical engineers in general, and instrument and controls people. Right now chemical engineering talent is pretty balanced for our needs, but I think going forward, chemical engineering will be a hot area. Lots of the infrastructure challenges that face the world will involve chemical engineering solutions, whether it’s air quality, environmental cleanup, or fossil fuel development.

What we have to work on, while we pursue and capture that mid-level talent, is accelerating the development of our less-experienced people, giving them more experience and classical training, and applying our retention programs.

One of the best sources of talent is referrals from our own people, because they know other engineers who are suited to the opportunities here at Black & Veatch. Those hires usually work out the best; they’re much quicker to integrate and get going.

Champagne, CH2M Hill: We are hiring now, trying to grow our organization because we’ve won work, and our goal is to expand. It continues to be difficult for a couple of reasons. Being an engineer isn’t as glamorous as some fields, like working in the stock market or going into business. The number of engineers coming out of schools today is decreasing. You see twice as many engineers graduating annually in India, and five times as many in China. It’s a challenge as our whole industry gets older.

We’ve created a new kind of employee, who can stay on with the company after they reach retirement age and have a flexible number of work hours, so we can keep that knowledge. Many retiring engineers want to keep active, but they don’t want to work 40 hours a week. We’ve even brought on some former utility people, and so have our competitors. These are key technical people who have taken early retirement and want flexibility.

Olander, Burns & McDonnell: Finding and retaining talent absolutely will be a challenge. It’s something we’re continually dealing with. Although the economy is down, the demand for engineers is very, very strong right now. Graduate engineers are getting multiple offers. And we’re seeing a lot of retirements among utility engineers who came into the industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There’s a void of experienced personnel, and we’re building from the ground up. It takes a lot of time, but fortunately we have a nice head start.

We’ve increased our staff a lot lately, and we’re in a position to support projects as they go forward. The next wave of projects will have a lot of permitting issues. The easy projects are done, and the tough projects are coming.