October , 1999

President's Notebook

Working With Change And Changing Our Work

By Darrel Danyluk, P.Eng.

Last month, my topic was change and how we respond to it. I have some more thoughts on change. What we need to do is understand the impact of change on us, on our professions, on our corporations and the publics we serve.

Specifically, I would like to focus on changes in our working environment. I concluded last month by noting that coping effectively with change in the workplace entails a shared responsibility by employers and the employees.

There are many factors driving change in the industries served by our Members. There is growing awareness of the value of skilled, loyal employees, their needs and the importance of the workplace environment to them. The climate of downsizing brought about by economic and political pressures has given way to the pressures of a growing economy with a strong demand for a dynamic knowledge-based service sector. We also find mergers and acquisitions are common in this growing economy in which worldwide demand and the opportunities for our professions are unprecedented.

HR Given Low Priority

I suspect that few engineers, geologists or geophysicists embarked on their careers with human resources (HR) issues, let alone management, high on their mind. With some individual and corporate exceptions, that may explain why we end up pigeon-holing HR or why we fail to give it the priority it deserves.

An experience a few years ago has increased my awareness and, I hope, changed my approach toward HR.

Starting in 1992, I had the privilege of chairing a national committee which examined human resources within the Canadian consulting engineering industry. While the comprehensive study, carried out under the auspices of Human Resources Development Canada and the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada, focused on consulting engineering and the constant restructuring it faces, the data collected came from all sectors of the profession. Beside drawing its membership from various-sized, private sector consulting firms, the committee included members such as Axel Meisen, P.Eng., then dean of engineering at the University of British Columbia; and Phil Morrison, a senior official with Industry Canada. Just as other sectors had input into the review, I believe many sectors can benefit from the study's analysis and insight. In short, it was not merely a 'consultants' report.

In preparing the report (From Potential to Prosperity: Human Resources in the Canadian Consulting Industry), it became apparent that too often consulting firms considered HR a burdensome expense rather than an opportunity; that our graduates lacked adequate training in the 'soft skills' and that overall HR was not a priority of management.

By default, HR then becomes the sole domain of the HR manager. This is not unusual. In fact, the national study determined that organizations in which the HR function reported directly to the CEO were in the minority.

It's time to recognize the need to change.

With the right mind-set, like a judo wrestler, we can turn a burden working against us, to our advantage. We can make HR a business partner and a means for maximizing the potential human resource by recognizing its power.

It's all too easy for managers to say "I'm in the engineering business"; "I'm into manufacturing" or "geology or geophysics is our thing". These are the products we offer but it is the people and how they provide them that hold the key to a successful business.

Certainly engineering, geology and geophysics - whether it is in the private or the public sector - are knowledge-based. This base of knowledge grows with each year of experience. The loss of this talent costs employers in many ways - through added outlays for recruitment, training, and inefficiencies related to replacement. In fact, it may be more costly in terms of perception.

Internal 'Brain Drain'

Discussion about a 'brain drain' from Canada has been in the news again. When we lose an employee, in effect, it amounts to a brain drain at the corporate level. If people emigrating from a country speaks to the conditions within that country, then 'emigration' from one employer to another may say much about the employer facing the loss.

Obviously, people will switch employment for various reasons. There are times when change will benefit the various parties, particularly if it lets ideas travel and if it infuses new blood. However, something has failed if an employee feels 'forced' to move.

Various HR factors contribute toward attracting and retaining staff. Beside fair compensation and reward, they include development of a positive corporate culture and sense of teamwork; opportunities for continuing education and upgrading skills; and employee pride in where they work and what they do. Programs related to these areas - perhaps sometime more than monetary compensation - are key to whether an employee stays or leaves.

Effectiveness in attracting, motivating and retaining employees not only determines the success of current projects, it also is critical in generating new business opportunities related to the growth and sustainability of any enterprise.

Mergers and Acquisitions

With mergers and acquisitions so common, you don't have to move to experience change. Decisions to join a company are made by individuals. When a merger or acquisition occurs, employees can sense a loss of control of their destiny. They may choose to leave. There are recognized human resources techniques that can reduce this kind of turnover - personnel losses of a kind which can undermine the very reasons for companies joining forces.

We may have moved far from the graduation-to-retirement approach of hiring and employment. Increased reliance on contracting and outsourcing are a reality. But that need not end commitment and loyalty - even by contract employees. Attracting and retaining this type of independent worker requires new HR techniques and approaches, and redefining traditional employee/employer roles and responsibilities. It provides further reason for prudent HR policies. (While it is only one of many potential sources of information on the subject, an APEGGA guideline on Contract Employment of Professional Members, developed by a Practice Standards Committee subcommittee, and published last year, provides some valuable insight and advice.)

Our workplaces will continue to change. An enlightened understanding of the impacts of these changes and a solid HR program for employers and employees will let us proactively address these changes. If we want society to value us, we must value ourselves.


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