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What happened to our bench strength? Engineering consulting firms and the modern day conundrum

Gavin Christie

Gavin Christie
Oct 18, 2016 09:37

Let’s be honest, it’s been a brutal few years for engineering consulting firms –– particularly those who service the mining, oil & gas, and energy sectors. Many engineers have lost their jobs. Many are still looking for employment. Many they feel as though they have been dismissed from the very firms they helped to build.

 It doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the industry –– or its main participants –– at the moment.

Would the last one out please turn off the lights?

To protect company profitability and shareholder returns, many engineering consulting firms chose to cut resources. A lot of resources.

The first round of cuts were largely utilization-based: engineers with low utilization rates or low prospects of future project work were let go. But the bloodletting didn’t stop there.

Further rounds of cuts involved office closures, discontinuing service offerings in order to cut entire divisions, and company-wide restructures, which in some cases included changes to executive management structure. You’ve heard the stories, and maybe even experienced them firsthand.

How do I deliver the engineering projects I win?

 Today, many engineering firms look like shells of their former selves, far removed from the resource-heavy behemoths they resembled just five years ago. Now that there is a general sense that the market is turning around, what is happening to the engineers who survived the cuts?

They are busier than ever.

For engineering firms, the major difference between five years ago and today is the resource depth, or bench strength. Engineers are genuinely frightened about the prospect of winning work. Why? They lack the bench strength to deliver projects!

Your bench strength was benched

If you’re one of these engineers, you’ve undoubtedly raised concerns to management. With a depleted delivery team and nonexistent specialist skills, you just can’t deliver great projects.

The typical management response, “Win the work and we’ll hire the resources you need,” is both baffling and concerning. How can you win work without a team you can depend on to deliver it? As a result of the downturn, your bench strength was benched.

Flexing up is going to be difficult

As market conditions improve, engineering firms will need to flex up, but what is the most cost effective way to do so?

You could reach out to engineers who have worked for you in the past, but chances are, your strongest former employees are also your most disenfranchised (when I asked a close friend who had been let go after 15 years of solid performance at an engineering firm whether he’d consider going back to work for the same company, his response was, “Never. Never [lots of profanity] ever”).

You could advertise roles and hire engineers. The process is costly and time-consuming, and internal approvals make it all the more difficult.

Inevitably, you’ll be faced with the conundrum outlined above: you can’t hire until you win the work, and when you do win the work, you can’t hire efficiently enough to deliver it.

Build your bench the agile way

A new option has emerged that will allow you to build your bench without adding to your overhead.

kkooee is the world’s first crowdsourcing marketplace dedicated to the engineering industry. Since launching in July, the site has amassed more than 2,500 freelance engineers, all available to work on the project you need, and only when you need them.

kkooee brings agility to your bench and efficiency to your resource model. You can search freelance engineers or support service professionals (e.g. GIS) and contract them directly through the site. What it provides you is a virtual bench: a crowd of highly skilled engineers available to support your projects, but only when you need them. Their collective expertise covers all the major engineer disciplines, along with highly specialized or niche skills.

Freelance engineers are low-overhead; they are typically 30-50% cheaper than traditional engineering consulting rates. And, they can be engaged in days, not weeks or months like traditional hiring models.

Agile flexing: the smart option for engineering firms

If the upheaval in the engineering industry has left your firm with reduced local project delivery capability, rebuilding your bench strength won’t be easy. But, new models are emerging that allow firms to source and contract engineers if and when they are required. Sites like kkooee offer consulting firms the ability to flex with agility, the smart way.