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Lessons Learned From An Economy Turned

By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search, Inc.
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of CivilEngineeringCentral.com

So one of the headlines from CNN.com on Wednesday read “Economists: Recession To End In 2009.” Reading this article got me to thinking that, now that we are beginning to see a little light at the end of the tunnel, what are some of the lessons that the civil engineering community has learned at the hands of this recession?

If you jump on the band wagon, be sure you pack a lot of padding for when the wheels fall off.

How GREAT was the land development boom in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the greater Washington, DC area (just to name a few)? Engineering firms were actually turning away work from developers (or, working 90 hour work weeks because they couldn’t say “no.”); engineers of all levels were relocating to these “hot spots”; Professional Engineers were starting their own firms because they saw the dollar $ign$ that were there to be made; every engineer I spoke with was chomping at the bit to work for a home builder or developer, and vying for those positions was like trying to get into Walmart as the doors open on Black Friday. You don’t have to look very far to see what has happened in the wake of this recession. Home builders and developers are selling off land (if they can) and running on skeleton crews at best. As a result, many of the civil engineers who were living the high life during these boom years have since been acquainted with acronym “RIF.” Knowing where the market was in those regions during the real estate boom, check out some of the headlines from the Las Vegas Review Journal for 2009: http://www.lvrj.com/hottopics/housing.html. Did you know that average price for a single family home in Phoenix for 2009 is $103,953.00 vs. $283,472.00 in 2008 (Source: Realty Times – Phoenix, AZ). To see the effect in the outlying suburbs of Washington, DC , take a look at the Housing Market Outlook For The Washington, DC Region as prepared by Robert Charles Lesser & Company. My hope is that everyone who reaped the rewards of these robust land development markets was able to tuck away some of those lucrative bonuses and put them to use to help cushion their fall.

Diversify. Diversify. Diversify.

If you have stuck around long enough to read through the paragraph above, you know where I’m about to go here. How many firms do you know put all of their eggs in the land development basket? I guess you can’t blame them, right? That’s where all the business was and it did not take long to be completely bogged down with lucrative land development work. To come up for air and even consider anything else was nearly impossible. With all that money floating around, that would have been the best time to hire some key players in water/wastewater, municipal infrastructure, transportation and other areas of specialization in order to begin establishing a presence outside of the land development arena. All good things come to an end, so when they did, by diversifying you would have had built established relationships and developed a nice track record within the municipal sector that would have helped ease the pain of the real estate bust. Unfortunately, many firms failed to diversify and by the time they realized they needed to pursue work in other areas, it was too late…in fact, pursuing work with public and governmental agencies these days is like trying to get into Walmart as the doors open on Black Friday (yup, I used that analogy again). Everyone is lined up looking for a piece of the action, but only a few will be fortunate enough to walk away with that nice plasma television.

Beware of “Best Firms”. Are they only the “Best Firms” during the best of times?

Don’t get me wrong, there are many firms out there that deserve all the awards they receive for ethics, management style, benefits, employee training, employee incentive programs, employee retention, state-of-the-art technology, exciting projects, work environment, etc. In fact, there are many firms that would likely win those types of awards but just choose not to submit themselves for consideration. The best firms to work for, as I see it, are the ones that have strong business plans with strong leadership and that have had a fully executable game plan in place for when the market turned as it did. They produced high quality work at a reasonable price with a diverse client base. They stocked away some cash and had good working relationships with their bankers. They are coming out of this downturn with minimal damage. They way I see it, the firms that rise out of this downturn and recession with the least amount of collateral damage to its employees, they are the “Best Firms” to work for.

The best marketing is producing a quality product. True, but lose the crutch.

It has always been said that the best form of marketing is developing a quality product, which in turn will produce great returns as a result of repeat business. How true this is, not only for civil engineering, but for many industries. But avoid using this as a crutch. What happens when your client’s well runs dry? Be prepared to put on your sales and marketing cap and start pounding the pavement. To better prepare yourself, make sure you take some classes and seminars on this topic of marketing and business development in the civil engineering industry; or even better, find a mentor within your company. And then once you learn some of the strategies, don’t let them become dust collectors – make sure you put them to practice. Keep in mind, just because the repeat business keeps repeating itself does not mean you should not be “out there” in the mean time marketing your services to other prospective clients. This way, when your backlog runs low you will have a head start on the process, and your cold calls will now be warm calls.

Keep your resume polished up as often as your shoes.

Treat your resume as you would your finest pair of shoes. Imagine a pair of dress shoes that have not been polished up in a long time. They look fine when you finally get them done, but if you had kept them shined and polished regularly throughout the years they would remain in top notch condition. Top notch condition is the way you should also keep your resume. Every time you get a promotion or receive an award, update your resume. Everytime you speak at a conference or write a paper, update your resume. Everytime you complete a project, update your resume. This way, should you roll into work one day after 20 years of loyal service only to be greeted with a cup of coffee and a pink slip, you will not be scrambling.

There are certainly many other lessons to be learned as we scratch and claw our way back into multi-year backlogs, and these are just a few. What other lessons have you learned that you can share with our readers?

About Matt Barcus

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One comment

  1. Thank you so much for this highly insightful article. I have been looking for a civil engineering viewpoint on the recession. My favorite line “Treat your resume as you would your finest pair of shoes”.
    Thanks.
    Ken.

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