Civil engineering is one of those fields that few people understand but is vital to every country’s economy and growth. Engineers build roads, bridges, utilities, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and energy generation sources, like wind, solar, natural gas, and power plants. And, civil engineers are in high demand.
We spoke with Michael Lazarz, Planet Forward’s Vice President of Energy and Infrastructure who has 22 years of experience, much of it in the architectural, engineering, construction, and environmental industries. He shared his view of the current competitive labor market and what companies can do to attract civil engineers.
What factors are affecting the supply of civil engineers?
I think there are several reasons why engineers are so in demand now. Oddly enough, one goes back to the last recession. It seems whenever there is a recession, architects and engineers are often laid off because the money for these infrastructure investments dries up. The problem is it creates a gap in experience level. For example, from 2008 through 2012, students weren’t going into engineering, specifically civil engineering. This created a two-to-three-year gap that we’re seeing now. So, when companies call me today and want somebody with eight to 12 years of experience, there’s your gap. We have a shortage of those years of experience across the country.
Another reason is the flow of students into engineering. American students that might have gone into civil engineering are going into computers or cybersecurity instead. Foreign students might come here for their engineering degree, but they must be sponsored to stay, which is a huge investment for a company, anywhere from $10K to $11K. These H-1B sponsorships have been down for the last three to four years.
How has the pandemic affected projects and the flow of work?
Actually, I haven’t seen much of an effect. Some projects were put on hold or they might have been delayed a month or two, but once companies got their bearings and figured out how to work with the pandemic restrictions, they just pushed right through it.
Civil engineers work in a lot of different settings. Design engineers work in offices while others work on-site overseeing the construction of a project. So, the pandemic affected people differently.
But one clear result of the pandemic is that more people are able to work remotely. For employers that means you have access to a larger labor pool than ever before. It’s a whole new market. Some companies want their employees to return to the office full-time, which at this point, is kind of old fashioned and short sighted. It is important to be open-minded and flexible about people working from home. As a recruiter, I would much rather have the ability to recruit from the whole country, place somebody, and have them Zoom in for a conference call to do the work.
The alternative – finding the perfect candidate within a certain geographical area or relocating someone – is much more difficult.
What can companies do to better attract the civil engineers that are out there?
Whether it’s new or senior civil engineers, it still comes down to the basics. Candidates are interested in the company culture, what the employer is offering in terms of salary, 401(k) matches, sign-on and retention bonuses, annual bonuses, professional development, and flexibility about working arrangements.
So, for instance, in this labor market, employers must be more flexible about salary. If they’re not in sync with the going rate for a good civil engineer, then they could lose out. It could be as little as $2K to $5K a year.
It’s very important for companies, consulting firms, and engineering firms to be in tune with the marketplace. Staffing firms like Planet Forward can help them out with that. They might say, “I’m looking for a civil engineer with two to three years of experience, but I’m looking to pay $50K.” I’ll tell them right away, “You’re not going to find somebody, at least not somebody that’s good.”
Besides salary, what else can employers do to attract candidates?
Flex schedules and work from home arrangements are huge now. Employers need to be more open-minded about these arrangements. At one of my clients, they are off every Friday in the summer. So, they work a four-day work week and have a three-day weekend. You’d be surprised how attractive that is. And it’s not just the civil engineers in the firm, it’s for all employees, which makes a statement about the company culture.
To that same point, today with social media and sites like Glassdoor, it’s more important than ever to keep a positive company culture. If a company has very low retention, it’s much harder to attract good civil engineers. But on the other side of that spectrum, if their retention is high and they have people that are averaging 15 to 20 years of experience with the employer, that’s a great selling point.
Recognizing employees’ efforts is so important. Again, in a competitive labor market, you can’t take your employees for granted because they have so many other options out there.
Offering professional development is another benefit. Maybe the employer doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room for salary but if they can offer the civil engineer development opportunities it sweetens the pot. For example, paying for training, registrations such as PE licenses that the candidate needs, or mentoring. All of these things play a role in where a civil engineer wants to work.
In such a “hot” labor market, what do you suggest employers do internally, for instance, in their interviewing processes?
It’s very important to move the interview process along quickly. It’s like the housing market now, with bidding wars on houses that have been on the market for only days. It’s the same thing with candidates today. They are on the market for a very short time. And if you don’t jump on them quickly, you’re going to lose them.
Every time I discuss a new position with a client, I tell them if we don’t move on a candidate within 48 hours, they risk losing them. If their process is two to three interviews or if it stalls they will lose out on a very good candidate.
Some employers have gone to a one interview step process as opposed to two or three, which is ideal. However, if you do need to have more interviews, arrange them ahead of time. So, if interview one goes well, you already have two and three planned to take place within days.
The bottom line is that in a competitive labor market like this, employers will need to get creative, especially if they can’t budge on salary. Benefits, professional development, flexible working arrangements, and a positive company culture are all pieces that can be used to attract – and retain – civil engineers.
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