"With xGEL we do not have to worry about misplacing paper work or doing calculations."

—Juan Nieto—
Tech Services Supervisor, Burge-Martinez Consulting, Inc.

A Profession or a Commodity?

by Arthur S. Koenig, PE, MDI Labs.Inc.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

From time to time I attend the annual meeting of a well respected engineering business leaders association. The purpose of these meetings is to allow the attendees, mostly owners and senior management of geotechnical engineering firms, to let their hair down and talk about things that otherwise they would have no outlet for. As part of these get togethers, speakers are invited to give presentations on all sorts of topics ranging from engineering liability control, to employment practices, to proper contract formation, to lessons learned the hard way, etc.

At a recent meeting, one of the sessions was titled something along the lines of "How to be treated as Professionals". The speaker, Dr Susan Harris, an A/E services business consultant primed the audience with some preliminary remarks about the word professionalism and after these preliminaries, she asked the audience by show of hands to indicate how many of them considered themselves trusted advisors to their clients. About 90% of the 400-strong audience raised their hands.

As I recall things, she then asked some of the group to explain why they felt that way. Their answers ranged from, "I work on big projects for big clients.", to "Well, we have lunch every so often and they give us a lot of their work". After this group had their say, the speaker then mentioned that at the icebreaker the previous evening, she had heard comments from many of the attendees that they were frustrated with the fact that the image of their profession was tarnished, the fact engineering fees were so low, and how they always felt that they were not providing professional services for a professional fee ( a contradiction to the earlier stated opinion that they were trusted advisors to their clients), but rather providing services for a fee that always seemed to be pressured by what "the other guy" was charging.

The response that rippled through the group was a sea-wave of head nodding accompanied by murmurs of muted agreement - all, of course, coming from many of the same company owners and managers that themselves had all played the "Let's try and think about what the other guy will probably charge, or how the other guy will scope the work, and then, to get the work, let's charge a little less, or not too much more" game.

By this time I was anticipating that this was going to be another one of those "Death to the bottom feeders", "Don't be a bottom feeder", or "What it means to be a professional, and now that you know it, go out communicate that to your client" kind of talks. I was also anticipating that I was about to hear another a pep-talk meant to convince us that the answer to our image and fee problems was to convince the clients that "we were professionals, by god", and that thereby convinced, they would allow us to charge more and would forever after treat us with the respect that was our due. As I sat back, I was thus resigned to hearing, for the umpteenth time, talking points along the lines of:

  • how much study it takes to be an engineer,
  • how we protect the health safety and welfare of the public,
  • how we have all kinds of overhead expense,
  • how we provide our folks with good pay, vacation and sick leave,
  • how we do charity work, and,
  • how our bottom feeder competition does not do any of this stuff, and therefore of course they can charge less, but that in charging less by paying less, they attract less qualified people to work for them, yadda-yadda.

It all boiling down to how, with all our proclaimed virtue, we really should be getting paid more, and be getting more respect, and here is the formula for convincing your clients of that.

Wanting to put my 2 cents of inoculation in before all the politically correct "look at how important we are and let's get the clients to see us that way" blah- blah started, I raised my hand to give my take on things. My recollection is that my comment started out along the lines as follows:

"I am sorry to break it to the group, but regardless of whether we think of ourselves as trusted advisors, our clients do not think of us that way or even as valued members of their team. To most of the clients, engineers are nothing more than commodities and products to be purchased just like bulldozers or jackhammers. The majority of clients do not consider the professionalism, or the time, or the training, or the judgment of the engineer. In the client's mind, an engineer is an engineer, is an engineer. All engineers are licensed by the state, all engineers go to engineering schools, all engineers can be engaged in proposal bid wars, and, deep down have the attitude that "I can always find another engineer just like I can find another plumber."

The thrust of my little firebomb was that, contrary to popular belief, engineers and engineering services are commodities, just like bread, or pork bellies, or oil futures, or plumbing or termite services. (Gasp)

After mulling over all the audience participation for a few seconds, the speaker then continued the presentation with something along the lines of "Well, folks lets talk about business markets in general and, in particular, let's talk about the engineering businesses." What transpired over the next 45 minutes was an outline of the life cycle of products and businesses, including discussion of things as Christensen's S-Curve, Moore's Early Adopters, Pragmatists, Late Adopters, and Laggards, Maslow's need hierarchy, and ideas such as fulfillment of need via a physical object vs. fulfillment of need via an experience object. In sum, and without any payoff from me beforehand, the a main thrust of her talk was this:

The engineering field that most of us work in is a mature business and has reached the flat line or plateau portion of its business life. As such, most of the work that most of us in the room do is commoditized and, for the most part, engineering itself is a commodity. So, if you do not want to be a commodity you best find something else to do.

(Double Gasp from the 400!) She went on to explain that the commoditized phase of a business or industry life cycle is normal, and occurs when the capabilities of the business generally exceed the expectations of most of the existing customer base. She further explained that this is in contrast to the early stages of a business segment where the needs and expectations of the majority of clients exceed the ability of the industry to provide them. Thus, in the past (think 1840 -1960), because of the expansion and industrialization of America, there were bridges needing to be built, when nobody knew how to build bridges and when every river needed to be crossed; there were structures needing to be built in unstable soils when there was no knowledge of soils engineering other than "keep digging till it quits caving in" (think Panama Canal), there was widespread disease and pestilence caused by pathogens in the drinking water when there were very few sanitary engineers that understood the problem or the solution (think cholera New York 1832). In short, during these times the expectations/needs of the market generally exceeded the ability of the engineering and contracting community, i.e., the pain was great, the societal and economic payoff enormous, and the scarcity of solutions astounding. This then lead to a focus on meeting these societal demands and resulted in engineering breakthroughs that were known and understood (think Terzaghi, Peck, etc.) by only a select few and were initially highly prized.

Thus it was that in those days, metaphorically speaking, engineers were indeed as gods ... only they were called professionals. And as professionals, their playground was society's pain, and an important concept is that their stature (a.k.a. respect) came from taking away that pain in a dramatic way. Need a bridge over the Mississippi so we can transport our $15,000,000/day of corn to market , call that guy Eads, or Roebling - they are about the only ones that know how to do it; need some atomic material, call that gal Curie because she is the only one that knows how to get it; need some canals or railways in England so as to get the coal to the industries down in London, call that guy Spencer because he is about the only one that knows what it really takes and if we can get a canal or railroad built we investors can make $12,000,000 pounds a month. In short, engineers were NOT a dime a dozen, because there were not a dozen of them around. (As to whether they have ever gotten more than a dime for their contribution, that is for another article.) Simply put then, in the early days we had a scarcity of competent engineers, and an excess of economic benefit that was being held in lock-up. This then was a great combination leading to engineers being held in high(er) esteem, so much so that by 1860, it was the engineers that were as gods, while at the same time doctors were considered quacks and charlatans.

This scarcity of engineering talent however was short lived however, because the overwhelming economic benefit to be gained by the application of these breakthroughs created extreme pressure for engineering to be propagated. Under this pressure, the propagation did indeed happen and was done by the various technical societies (ASCE was formed in 1852), and by creation of university engineering and technical programs (USMA 1802, RPI 1824, Harvard 1846, Yale 1847, Washington University in St Louis School of Engineering 1857). It was also done by industry sponsorship as they realized more engineers meant first-mover profits for them.

So, if engineers used to be held in high esteem and used to be considered as gods, where have the gods gone? The answer is that they are still here, but they are now just mere mortals commuting to work with the masses, doing their work just as the masses do, and, sorry to break the bad news to all my brethren out there, are themselves indistinguishable from the masses.

Thus it is that much of the engineering that is done today by millions of engineers - engineering that only a few in the world knew how to do when it was first needed - is now but mundane drone work, done by graduate engineers who do not yet have, nor need, an engineering seal to be able to do what they do. LaPlace Transforms, 2d year Calculus; Moment Distribution Method - 2d year Structures; Atomic Reactor Physics - 3d year Physics; Settlement Analysis -1st year Soils; Phase Equilibrium of Soils Water - 3d year Soils; Finite Element Analysis or slope stability - presently done by an entry level engineer who pushes "Run" on the computer keyboard.

What happened that took the engineer from his exalted position to that of a mere mortal having lowly status? Was it because engineers failed to continually communicate to society how important they were? No - that was not it. The reason for the fall is because the reality of things is that after any discovery of any economic importance, economics demands propagation and application; propagation and application requires standardization and codification; and standardization and codification lead to the final resting place of all products, services, and technologies - commoditization. Thus it is that the same engineering that used to be dispensed from a godlike pedestal, is now a commodity - a commonplace.

So, where does this leave today's engineer and how should he be thinking about things so that his thinking is aligned with reality - and so he does not quit his job and become a software developer or shoe salesman? Well, that is the subject of next month's installment.

To be continued ........ if I am not run out of town on a rail beforehand.