I was responding to a survey about business conditions today and one of the questions was: “Do you believe employees are your most valuable asset?” Of course, I answered “Yes.” In any service industry, the people who provide service are key to a firm’s longevity and success.

However, I wonder if the majority of firms in our profession (engineering) really treat employees as their most valuable asset? A recent engineering industry trend seems to be the number of large firms that are becoming mega-firms, especially PTECs (publicly traded engineering companies). In the 1980s, I worked for a PTEC, and observed that the organizational structure made it very hard for an employee to make a difference.  Further, the PTEC business model hindered the organization’s ability to deliver top-notch service and products. Ultimately, it was difficult to do excellent work, and the firm could not make the necessary profits to be sustainable. I knew almost immediately that I was in the wrong company, but it took me 18 months to get out and move on. When I heard the firm closed its Denver office and when they were subsequently acquired by a Belgian mining company, I was not surprised.  My early experiences working at PTECs were similar to the stories that I hear about the culture of today’s mega-firms.  These experiences shaped my later approach to creating a culture at LRE that allows us to enjoy our work and make a difference for our clients.

Expectations of professional staff at such firms make we wonder how they will be able to retain talent:  Telling employees that they are valuable and then treating them like a commodity; allowing staff to provide mediocre service because the firm is unable to afford to investigate creative solutions; and not taking care of our staff from a professional development standpoint may well lead to resentment and disengagement.  When firms employ these tactics, they render themselves powerless to support careers for employees, meaning those employees may be lost to other industries.  Additionally, firms risk losing the respect or trust of their clients because of poor service and low-quality work.

So why be concerned about the most recent rise of PTECs? After all, LRE has certainly benefitted from this trend.  In fact, several outstanding scientists and engineers have come to LRE, so disenchanted by their firm’s acquisition and structure change to a PTEC that they felt compelled to resign and move on.  Despite our firm’s talent “gain”, I want to see the engineering profession as a whole change their mindset to a more employee-centric view and 1) continue to recruit talented young college graduates, 2) be structured and operated in a way that creates meaningful careers for our employees, so that they can 3) add value to our clients’ businesses and organizations through creative problem solving.

LRE continually strives to evolve and improve, beginning with me and the rest our leadership. What we aim for, and generally achieve, are internal and external relationships based on mutual respect. We must continue to be transparent and honest in our business practices so that employees can take risks and take the initiative to grow. We expect that every employee we hire will make the rest of us step up our game, and we look for ways to recognize excellence.  We are committed to being flexible and nimble, making decisions responsibly and quickly, and re-evaluating practices and procedures on a regular basis. Addressing our most valuable asset—our employees–has long been an important part of LRE’s business model, and we must continue to get better at that as well. For the sake of our industry, I hope that PTECs can do the same.

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