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Industry faces engineer shortage.

At a time when various professions are facing dire recruitment challenges nationally, consulting engineering firms are looking at methods to dam the increasing flow of skilled professional engineers to more lucrative careers.

Don Ingram is president of the Consulting Engineers Ontario (CEO), an advocacy group for the roughly 275 member consulting and 25 affiliate firms, from sole practitioners to the largest firms in all markets. He says one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is "recruiting sufficient, experienced talent."

While the basic numbers of graduates in engineering has not changed. nationally the past decade, the mix certainly has. Figures released by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers in December 2000 indicate that enrolment in civil engineering has decreased by roughly 30 per cent from 1994 to 1999 levels.

Between 1995 and 1999; the number of civil engineering degrees awarded nationally decreased by 28 per cent. In 1999 the number of civil engineering degrees was 18 per cent less than in 1998.

Meanwhile, the report states that from 1995-96 to 1999-2000 computer engineering experienced a growth of 89 percent in enrolment.

Competition for qualified engineers in a number of sectors has attracted skilled engineers, and Ingram says, the recession of the early 90s contributed to some leaving the profession for other opportunities. At the provincial level, the CEO is trying to address the shortage issue on a number of fronts. The organization is working to create civil consulting programs, working with allied associations such as construction, and is meeting with the provincial government.

National Engineering Week, held in March, is a Canada-wide effort to inform the public and students in particular about career opportunities and the role of engineering in society.

While efforts continue nationally and provincially, Dave Knutson, president of Cook Engineering in Thunder Bay, has a narrower focus on recruitment, challenges. He says steady growth in business opportunities in his firm has driven his search for intermediate to senior mechanical engineers with heavy industry experience for the past year. A corporate restructuring has also created some vacancies when some engineers assumed management positions.

Of Cook Engineering's staff, roughly 20 are professional engineers and five are engineers-in-training.

Knutson says the current shortage can be attributed in part to lean times in the early 90s when some industry engineers lost their jobs through economic influences.

"(Engineers) felt fairly vulnerable that they would not be there for extended periods of time," Knutson says. Consequently, some left as a result of discouragement to other sectors or business opportunities and have created a void.

At the same time there was a rise in demand for software and computer engineering graduates, which he says still holds a certain allure over traditional heavy industry environments and means that those engineers must relocate to high-tech centres.

With most large resource-based companies having reduced in-house engineering staff in an attempt to slash operating costs over the past decade, many competent professionals let go had the pick of where they wanted to work in the consulting field. That boosted competition among consulting firms to battle for those who know the inner workings of specific mills and operations.

Knutson says these factors contribute to making it difficult for consulting engineering firms in Northern Ontario to attract qualified engineers. He readily admits base salaries for many Northern firms do not match those for their counterparts in industries such as pulp and paper or mining, but there are incentives and balances such as payment of overtime and the chance to become an associate.

Many firms, including Cook Engineering, have accepted that they must invest in training new graduates when they can get them, Knutson says. However, for Cook Engineering it means a "new arrangement" whereby an engineer can be dedicated to one project for a long time.

"Traditionally," Knutson says, "we were hesitant to lend individuals to clients for an indeterminate period of time."

It becomes a balance act for the firm. On one hand they are guaranteed a certain percentage of billable hours, but on the other it shifts the load of human resources management from the industry client to the individual firm.

Knutson says his firm's tracking and performance measurement methods currently "indicate a large number of (staff) dedicated to a single contract."

Professional development, training and team building all can suffer if a staff engineer is working on only one client project for a comparatively long time, he says.

Cook Engineering, which serves primarily pulp and paper and mining industries and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, offers a range of assignments that can challenge staff, Knutson adds.

While he says he is starting to "see a bit of contraction in pulp and paper" activity, he is optimistic about mining. Aside from mining projects in northwestern Ontario, the firm is also working on a backfill plant in Nevada and on projects as distant as North West Territories.

Knutson says Northern Ontario will always appeal to engineers and their families looking for the so-called northern lifestyle and quality of life.

Closeness to work, the outdoors, family life "will always be an attraction for those people," he says, adding that it will work only if firms adopt a "global view and can develop an attractive career path" for staff.

Cook Engineering has relied until now on agencies, networks, its own Web site and the Internet to recruit, but it is not enough.

"We have to get creative," Knutson says. "We've tried the basic advertising techniques with limited results."

South along Highway 17, Bill Walker talks from his Sault Ste. Marie office and, despite offering different engineering services, he sings the same lament as Knutson.

Walker is the president of Walker Engineering Inc., a civil engineering firm with three professional engineers and two engineers-in-training among a staff of 20.

"It has always been difficult to attract people from the south because, to a large extent, people don't know what is going on here," Walker says.

That ignorance is coupled with an emerging interest and development of new engineering disciplines, which is drawing students who may have otherwise enrolled in civil engineering.

Walker says that does not bode well for the anticipated spike in civil engineering projects to mend an ailing national infrastructure. He expects to see a shortage in civil graduates for another decade, which will make it a challenge for all firms to hire the best.

Mergers and acquisitions of international firms will magnify that shortage, Walker says. As the industry consolidates, it offers opportunities for Ontario engineers to relocate to offices outside the country. And the pending wave of U.S. infrastructure projects, such as highway rehabilitation, will only make it harder for civil engineering firms to recruit.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Canadian Council of Professional Engineers report
Author:HUNREAULT, GREG
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Words:1108
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