The Engineering and Construction Contracting Association (ECC) held their 43rd annual conference September 7 – 10, 2011, at the JW Marriot Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona. This year’s attendance was the largest in the conference’s history with over 600 registered attendees. Centered on the theme, Journey Into Uncharted Territories, the ECC delivered a timely and relevant conference that provided valuable insight into the critical issues facing the capital projects industry as it moves forward in an environment of high risk and economic uncertainty.
A unique aspect of the ECC is the Future Leader Program. This program brings together new leaders throughout various industries and allows them to take on an active role not only in the ECC, but directly in the conference. This year, many of the Future Leaders served on one of three conference committees. One committee was responsible for planning and leading the Future Leader Working Session, which included interactive sessions on cross-cultural communication and ethics. Another committee presented the Cool Projects forum, which highlighted two unique projects: the Gorgon Project at Barrow Island in Western Australia and the Athabasca oil sands project in Northern Alberta. Finally, a third group of Future Leaders presented the Evolution of Our Workforce forum.
I was able to be part of a talented team of Future Leaders that presented the Evolution of Our Workforce: Retain/Refocus/Replenish forum. For almost six months, our team met on a weekly basis as we worked to prepare the presentation. Our work began with the task of analyzing how the engineering workforce will be affected by the baby boomer generation retiring from the workforce. As we began to research this issue, we encountered a wealth of information. But, as often is the case, each answer created a new question. While we dug deeper into our research our group came to a consensus that the retirement of the baby boomer generation was not going to have the major impact on the engineering workforce as we had originally predicted. Instead, we began to uncover other issues that, in our opinion, could greatly affect the makeup of the engineering workforce.
In addressing these findings at the forum, we concentrated on what we called the three R’s: Retain, Refocus, Replenish. Throughout our research, it became apparent that one major challenge facing the engineering industry is the tendency for engineers to change fields just a few years into their careers. While some engineers will progress into non-technical roles within the engineering industry, we felt that the data showed a significant percentage of young engineering professionals were leaving the industry entirely to pursue other challenges.
After discussing the challenges associated with retaining workers, we transitioned into a discussion on what the industry and individual companies could do to refocus their efforts to their current workforce. This includes allowing workers to experience new roles within their companies, addressing ever increasing generational gaps among the workforce, staying abreast of the latest technologies, and other such initiatives aimed at keeping the current workforce challenged and engaged in the industry.
Finally, we addressed the challenges of attracting students into the engineering profession. Our research found that as much as 40% of students who graduate with an engineering degree never enter the engineering workforce. We also found that the engineering industry struggles with an outside perception that an engineering degree is undesirable when compared to other professions such as medicine, law, or business. This perception often detracts high school students from even considering engineering when entering college. We explored what companies can do and are doing to overcome such problems.
Once we presented our findings, we transitioned into an interactive discussion where audience members were able to offer their perspective on the issues being raised and what their companies were doing to address these issues. Our forum was well attended, which allowed for an interesting discussion as industry leaders were able to participate. As professionals, our days are usually consumed with the everyday demands of our careers, and the challenges facing the workforce in our industry are easy to overlook. Our goal was to make others more aware of these challenges and to encourage individuals and their companies to take a more proactive role in facing these obstacles. Based on the forum discussion and the passion exhibited by many, I feel we were successful in accomplishing that goal.
I look forward to many more years of being a part of the ECC and the Future Leader Program, and being involved in next year’s conference in San Antonio. I hope to see you there.
To review some of the sources and materials the Future Leaders Program used to draw the opinions and conclusions mentioned in the blog, please visit:
Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, National Academy of Sciences
Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics