Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The silent career killer - are you affected?

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.

It’s not easy. For most of us, work is where we spend the majority of our waking hours. The people we share our cubicles and offices with begin, over time, to blur our understanding of the lines between colleagues and friends. In this environment, a silent killer has emerged.

Most of the lines we know not to cross are clear. Everyone with a brain in their head knows that there is no role in the workplace for sex, violence, religious proselytizing or racial language. These we simply recognize as universally accepted conventions of modern life.

In one of life’s minor ironies, what ‘political correctness’ fails to address is the only thing we could really use some clarity on – to what extent is it correct to be political?

Is bringing political views into the workplace, including visible support for causes of all kinds, acceptable? Or is it no better than bringing in pornography or handing out copies of the Book of Mormon? Both of these can be defended with first amendment arguments.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat in hoodies last Thursday
Emotive issues can arise overnight and garner widespread public support. Trayvon Martin’s shooting in Florida a month ago has drawn substantial attention across the United States . The symbol of the growing awareness movement is a hoodie, worn with the hood up. In Atlanta on Sunday, Pastor Raphael Warncock preached in a hoodie to a congregation clad in hoodies. LeBron James and the Miami Heat appeared in a team photo on Thursday, all hooded. But does this mean you can or should wear a hoodie to work? 

Where does politics sit on the spectrum of acceptable workplace behavior? Should you support or highlight any political cause in a professional environment? What are the benefits of supporting a cause at work?

The answers are: Nowhere, No and None.

The best advice anyone who works in the field of employment can give you is that you leave your politics at home. At the end of the day, the philosophical arguments around your right to express your views are far less relevant than the practical considerations that make these expressions extremely unwise. Here are six reasons to keep your job and career politics free.

It’s not what you’re there for
Above all other things, there is an overriding principal that cannot be ignored. Our behavior at work must be governed by the fact that someone is paying us to be here, and probably not to have political conversations, or inspire others to have them.

Even if we’re not ethically required to keep our personal opinions away from the work place, we are obliged to limit our activities to those for which we take the pay check.

It is far more likely to do you harm than good
People are offended far more easily than they are impressed. For example, on your way in to work tomorrow morning when you pass the front desk security person, at whom you normally smile politely, wave boisterously and call out ‘Hi John! How are you doing?’ Then tomorrow morning, at exactly the same moment, shout an expletive at him. A year from now, ask him which one he remembers.  When you offend someone, knowingly or unknowingly, it lingers. One positive interaction with you does not cancel out one negative one. It’s called politics for a reason: it divides people. However safe your issue, someone somewhere will be offended. How will that affect their professional interactions with you?

You don’t know what you don’t know.
Politics has filled more cardboard boxes
than many people realize. 
A colleague of mine who often wore an NRA baseball cap on dress down Fridays couldn’t understand why I thought it was a bad idea for him to wear it to work. ‘When people ask about it, I tell them it’s a civil liberties issue,’ he said. He went on to explain that this instantly put them at ease that he wasn’t some nutcase stock piling weapons in his garage to unload at the ethnic minority of his choice. Problem solved as far as he was concerned. ‘What about the people who don’t ask?’ I said. Blank stare. What he had failed to take into account was that not everyone who raised an eyebrow, or more, gave him the opportunity to express his view. All around the workplace were people who had made their judgments already, without any thought of giving him the opportunity to put his views in context. You may well start some interesting conversations, but it’s the conversations you won’t get to have that could hurt you most.   

It’s not scalable.
Plugging your cause, whether it’s political or charitable simply isn’t realistic if everyone does it. Seven hundred people with one cause a year means two causes every day. You’ve just destroyed the business you work for.

Who died and made you emperor?
What matters to us almost certainly doesn’t matter nearly as much to others and we should have the humility to realize this. Who made you the office’s moral guardian? You can’t choose your colleagues and they didn’t choose you, they certainly didn’t elect you to tell them what they should care about. You have no mandate.

What if the story changes?
Attaching yourself to an uninvestigated cause could lead you to look foolish later when a different narrative emerges. Your ‘John Smith is innocent’ t-shirt will get you the most attention when John Smith pleads guilty to ten murders. If you jump on the bandwagon, you may fall off. Your fortunes in the perception of your colleagues will rise and fall with whoever you’re supporting. (How’s that John Edwards for President poster in your office looking now?)

Stay focused on what you’re at work to accomplish. It’s not a question of ethics, or your rights – it’s a simple practical thing.

Whatever your professional aspirations – career progression, promotion, more contracts, more money, freedom and flexibility – espousing your political views will not help you achieve them.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering staffing and global engineering jobs.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

If it's not rocket science, why do so few people understand it?

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.

I'm confident that most of the people who read this blog will agree that there are distinct differences in the application of project Document Control versus the application of other information related functions such as Records Management or Operational Document Control or non-technical Document Management. Then there are differences across sectors of Engineering as to how Document Control is approached and generally understood.

There are experts in the field of Records Management that are highly competent and very experienced but really would not have the first idea of how to set up a project Document Control function. There are people with degrees in Information Management who don't even know what we mean by project Document Control. Believe me this is not conjecture, I have had the honour of having to work with many such people; I learnt something from them and I like to think some of them learnt something from me. For example, when I want your opinion, I'll give it!

(Of course I also know some world class Information Managers and even some Records Managers who understand what Document Control should look like, but they all started out as Document Controllers themselves).

Meanwhile, if you think I'm stretching the facts, consider this. The Gartner Guide is used by many businesses to select the best EDRMS tools. If a system sits in their 'magic quadrant' then it's considered a safe bet. Well I've been interviewed by two representatives from Gartner on two separate occasions, where I was involved in a system selection process. On both occasions, so that they could understand the requirements for the system, I had to explain at length and from scratch, what Document Control is, how it works and why it's important. They could then begin to understand the difference between content management which is their area of expertise and Document Control, which is mine.

Many, many companies have invested hundreds of millions (conservative estimate) in these systems, having taken advice from such experts and from Records Management experts and Information Management experts and of course the 'A' list consultancies who know that these systems are a meal ticket for them, only to discover that they need to spend millions more on customisation, more consultancy and on bolting on things the system is not designed to do. For example bulk upload metadata without content. In that time of course they may also have lost money on claims, lost work and missed deadlines, KPI payments, been hit with disallowed costs etc, etc for lack of traceability and proper reporting.

(Obviously there are realms of content management and record management requirements outside of project Document Control whereby an EDRMS content solution makes perfect sense, particularly for big corporations and global enterprises however, a proper Document Control database is also needed and there are so many examples where that alone would more than fulfil the requirement).

I have complete respect for my fellow colleagues and for their expertise in their own fields. Obviously good Records Management is essential. Patently, for the sake of our planet, good Operational Document Management is paramount and of course there are thousands of other business sectors like Legal, Banking, Retail and so on where there are different requirements in Document/Content Management.

The fact is however, that on engineering projects, without best practise project Document Control the Records Manager won't have everything they need to archive and the Operations team will have neither the complete record or the quality and compliance across the docbase that is critical not only for Safety but for the performance and maintenance of the asset.

This is one of the multitude of reasons that Deliverable Schedules are so essential. Getting the information up front from Contractors and Vendors so that you can plan the distribution and approvals but also so that you know what you should have to handover and that the supply chain have signed up to it. Which takes me back to bulk uploading of metadata without file content; it's a fundamental requirement of project Document Control. If a system doesn't have that then I need something that does.

A very common syndrome is that many businesses have compromised by adjusting how they work according to what the system they've spent so much on is capable of. The words tail and dog spring to mind.

I'm interested to know others experiences across different sectors. I personally believe very strongly that there are key pillars of best practise that apply in all sectors, be it Rail, Aviation, Oil and Gas, Civils, Mining, Defence. Meanwhile I have spoken to Nuclear Power owner operators who, like the Gartner reps, had no idea what I was talking about. It was all new. Same in Aerospace, same in Mining, Utilities etc and even when companies do acknowledge a need, there is still a vast spectrum in their levels of understanding and therefore across the standards and application of Document Control across these sectors.

An obvious result of this lack of understanding is reflected in the quality of people that get hired to do Document Control. Where there is no recognition of the function as a discipline, people will be hired with little or no experience because they are cheap and they'' do what they're told by someone else who doesn't know what needs to be done. Then someone decides that a new system will solve their problems, so they get some expensive consultants to send in some business analysts to define requirements. They get the requirements from the users who don't know anything but the consultants don't care because they can deliver a system that they know will generate more work for them when the business wises up that the requirements were inadequate. It's called the 'long con'.

I heard of a major airport programme for example where all the legacy drawings were lost; out on the site somewhere, thrown into old containers and nobody could remember where. So they had to re-survey the whole site. I've heard of facilities being built to hundreds of rejected drawings that are currently operating. I had a colleague that worked on a massive refinery programme where one of the US design houses engaged in a long running battle with him because he insisted that they keep the same drawing and document numbers throughout their lifecycle and uprev them when they resubmitted. They insisted that he was wrong and that they always change the drawing number and keep the revision the same! You couldn't make it up.

I am trying to highlight, again, the need for recognition of expertise in the field of project Document Control, specifically. I am interested in others views and experiences on the subject and I am interested in raising the profile of so many highly professional practitioners that I've had the great pleasure to work with over the last 30+ years, many of whom I count as close friends.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard people dismiss Document Control with the tired line 'it's not rocket science'. No it 's not, neither is designing a bridge, but there is a science to delivering first class project Document Control and it's value is immeasurable. The people who can deliver that should also be recognised and valued.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering staffing and global engineering jobs.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Planning a spectacular resignation? Be prepared to live with it.

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.

The internet has a very, very long memory. We would all do well to remember that.

This last week has been shark week for the disgruntled employee. On Wednesday, mild mannered mid-level executive Greg Smith dropped a bomb on Goldman Sachs, when his resignation letter was printed as an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

Just a day earlier, senior engineer James Whittaker posted a blog to Google’s intranet explaining the reasons behind his decision to quit the internet giant.

Greg Smith's resignation letter 
appeared in the New York Times
Both employees came off as genuinely concerned, likeable and – most importantly – never surrendered the moral high ground. Goldman Sachs, said Smith's letter, lacked integrity in its dealings with customers. Google, said Whitaker, had sold the company’s soul to advertisers and destroyed the culture of innovation. There were no insults, no personal finger pointing and no sarcastic tone. Both men will be criticized for going public, but both can defend their actions as necessary and ultimately dignified. 

Of course, not everyone takes this approach when it comes to resignation.

A personal favorite of mine will always be Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater who, after being pushed too far one too many times by an obnoxious passenger, grabbed a beer from the trolley, popped the lever of the emergency exit shoot and slid to freedom like a child in a play park – his resignation, called over his shoulder, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’

Joey DeFrancesco of Providence, Rhode Island can be found on YouTube resigning with the enthusiastic support of a brass band. Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Micro bowed out with a haiku via twitter (Financial crisis / Stalled too many customers / CEO no more.)

There are a lot of ways to quit a job. And the original approaches, while cathartic and enormous fun for your colleagues at the water cooler, will surely do the quitters little good in the long term. In the social media age, the things we do will stay with us, and recruiters are more and more thorough when it comes to web-vetting job applicants. Steven Slater’s CNN piece on YouTube has a quarter of a million hits. (As an employer would you really take the risk on it happening to you?)

Social Media has changed the culture 

of Spring Break
A report in the Times on the same day as Greg Smith's letter suggests that college students on spring break are becoming less wild and carefree. With cellphone cameras, Twitter and Facebook just a click away, party-goers are aware of what the consequences of their drunken antics might be.  They have simply changed their behavior. The same thinking should influence our workplaces. Anything you do could go viral at any minute, and there is no putting the toothpaste back in the YouTube. 

The end of employment is a natural part of the employment cycle, whether you quit or you’re let go. Hopefully most of the time it will be your decision, so when your time comes, remember that you’ll have to live with your actions for the rest of your career.

Even if your big statement doesn't attract national attention, you could easily develop a very unwelcome fifteen minutes of fame at an industry level. That will be enough to seriously affect your career prospects later on. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

It’s the women, stupid.

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.
Last week’s blog elicited more responses than any other I’ve posted in the last six months. In hindsight, I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me – after all, skill shortages are genuinely seen to be the biggest problem facing the engineering industry today. Most of the responses focused on just one of the reasons I laid out for the skills gap – women.

My favorite response was a one line e-mail, which I’ve used as this week’s title.

11% of engineers are women. 
After much thought and some vibrant discussion with some of the respondents, I’m ready to call it: The key to the global engineering skill crisis is women.

Statistics vary but let’s agree that the true proportion of women in engineering roles in the United States is 11%.

What would be the impact if everybody in the industry from top to bottom agreed to make every effort available to them to move this figure to 40% by the year 2030. That gives us 18 years to transform the fortunes of our weakened skill pool. One solution – with total focus – that would give the world the engineering skill and experience it needs.

This is a challenge I’m leveling at all of us, not just the college admissions guys, not just the corporate recruiters attending college job fairs (although they are both key to the objective.) I’m calling out everyone from the agency recruiters to the project managers. From the CEO of multinational E&C companies to the guy on the drawing board. You can solve the entire engineering skills crisis – we know how, we have the answer – what are we going to do about it?

We have some really obvious places to start: We have to encourage entrance to the industry from schools and colleges; we have to create awareness of a supportive environment that recognizes the need for flexibility and can provide it (how many other professions are there where it's completely normal to finish a project and take a few months off - then start something else when you're ready? Without losing a drop of career equity.); above all, we have to remove the perception that engineering projects are male dominated environments – when they really aren’t. The last major project I worked on was about 50% female in the main project office. Women were well represented as a whole, including the project lawyer and most of her team, the PR and HR department, finance, procurement and administration – just not engineering disciplines themselves.

This perception that it’s a boys club has to change. Only then can we grow the numbers we need. The money grabbing lawyers of the world have worked out how to accomplish this – they’re already at 40% - surely we can do it if they can?

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering staffing and global engineering jobs.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Case of disappearing engineers remains unsolved

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.
Skill shortages are threatening America’s Engineering & Construction industries. We all acknowledge that the problem exists. You will find more people in this country who deny the existence of climate change than deny that America is desperately short of engineers. There is simply nobody on the other side of the argument.

Today the New York Times highlights a new and worrying aspect of the problem in a front page story (Where the jobs are, training may not be by Catherine Rampell.)

The future of the engineering workforce is seriously unclear.
Cuts in education spending resulting from economic woes are kicking us where we can least suffer the blow. The latest problem? Expensive technical classes are being cut before anything else at cash-strapped public colleges all over the country. Teaching technical subjects is expensive. Science, technology, healthcare and engineering require equipment and materials that you simply don’t need to teach Literature or Philosophy.  This is not a rant about arts and humanities programs and what they contribute to American industry – we need philosophers, we need journalists and yes Governor Perry – we need anthropologists.  We just don’t need them nearly as badly as we need engineers.

It’s probably valuable to explain why the engineering skill pool is in such a poor state of repair. There’s a number of reasons, but these are the top 5:

1.       Pull of the IT sector during the 80’s and 90’s.
The IT sector (electronics, programming and so on) sucked a huge number of technical minds away from civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. Those people are in their 40s now, and they represent the age group and level of experience that is scarcest in the industry today.

2.       Baby Boomers are bowing out
The huge generation born in the late 40s are retiring now. These are our senior people, the experienced engineers who might have hung around until their late sixties in order to fund their retirement. But these people prospered in the last three decades; they got rich on tax free assignments in the Middle East and high dollar contracts that lasted ten years instead of ten months and many have looked to retire early, cashing out at 60 on final salary pension schemes, their mortgages long since paid off.

3.        Women
Since the 1970s, every industry has seen massive rises in the percentage of female entrants. Not engineering and construction. 11% of engineers are women; you can dress the statistics up as much as you like – this is contemptible. (40% of lawyers becoming partners this year will be women; 33% of doctors are female; Chartered Accountants? – 41%). In the race for the hearts and minds of women choosing a profession, we are failing miserably.  

4.     Outsourcing undermining intake            
There’s a joke circulating our community at the moment. What’s the first thing you teach an undergraduate in Engineering 101? How to say Do you want fries with that? in Chinese. As young people watch technical jobs being outsourced, it’s difficult to sell them on the career choice. Whether their perception is accurate or not (it’s not) the fact is that the perception that engineering is not an outsource-proof choice of career is hurting us.

5.    Today’s issue – we’ve stopped teaching.
Today’s issue merits a place in the top 5. If we shut off the pipeline now by failing to make classes available to those who want to train, will that make things better or worse in the future? Enough said.

Nobody in the United States of America is working on a solution to the long term problem of technical skill shortages. Not the private sector, not education, not government – nobody. We need ideas – real ones – that can be applied now and sustained. Without this effort, from everyone in the industry, we’re going to continue our current slide.

Next week:
Part 2 - Solutions to the engineering skill crisis - what's on the table?

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering staffing and global engineering jobs.