How does the farmer grow a new crop every year?

Joel Koenig, P.E.
Senior Project Manager
Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, Inc.
Aurora, Illinois
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

If farmers can grow a new crop year after year, why can't we manage to fill our open public works or engineering positions? That is a question many of us are asking these days.

The big question, however, is where do we as an industry find the next generation of public works leaders and civil engineering project managers? That's what the Chicago Metro Chapter wanted to learn. In order to hear more about the status of hiring in the industry and developing those new recruits, the chapter invited two well-recognized professionals in the industry to speak at a leadership breakfast during their chapter conference held this past May in Schaumburg, Illinois.

Dr. Jeffrey Russell shared his views about keeping an organization healthy with members of the Chicago Metro Chapter.

Dr. Jeffrey Russell, Ph.D., P.E., is a professor and the Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a professor and educator, he is well versed on the education and development of young people as they enter the world of civil engineering and public works. He has also written about this subject.

His business card is inscribed with the following: "Preparing the next generation of leaders!" The exclamation mark is not a hyperbole by this author, but an emphasis of Dr. Russell's. This man is a true believer. He believes that human resources will be the true capital of this century. Developing this capital is the key to success.

To keep an organization healthy or to grow that organization, new people are needed. So where do they come from?

When asked about developing new engineers, Dr. Russell said, "Five percent of all Bachelor of Science degrees are granted to engineers." He went on to say that "increasing the amount of H1B visas is only a short-term tactic. We need people who are invested in their communities and have a passion for fixing things like schools and cities. They need to work from the inside out."

In Dr. Russell's opinion, there is no question that we need to bring more women and minorities into the field. It takes effort to do this. We must find young people already motivated, mentor them and show them what public works and civil engineering have to offer. Then, according to Dr. Russell, we need to foster their passions, since as a generation they already have that altruistic urge to fix the world.

Isn't this what we do in public works—fix things every day? What a great natural combination.

But there is a problem. In his book Leadership and Management in Engineering, Dr. Russell cited statistics showing that "...since the early 1990's enrollment in engineering programs by African-Americans has dropped 17 percent and has remained relatively flat, at about 20 percent, for women."

Start Where You Are
Encouraging minorities and women to enter our field is critical. Developing these future public works leaders starts early. Arthur Ashe, the famous African-American tennis player and civil rights advocate, said "Start where you are, use what we have, do what we can." The programs being developed by APWA and other professional groups that reach out to grade schools, high schools and universities fit right into this development process.

So once we talk them into our field, what is the job potential? Are there jobs for them?

Heidi Voorhees, President of the PAR Group, answered that question for us. PAR is a consulting firm that specializes in assisting local government agencies in the search for talented leaders. Voorhees should know. Prior to joining PAR, she worked in various public agency management positions during her 19-year public service career.

Heidi Voorhees, President of the PAR Group, spoke to Chicago Metro Chapter members about what communities look for in their leaders.

Voorhees explained what communities are looking for in their leaders. The skills in demand are management and collaboration abilities, creativity in problem solving, and a kind and gentle style with the ability to plan ahead. Of great importance is the ability to work with other units of government and citizen's groups. Thoughtfulness is a desired trait as well.

A good buzzword for the engineers in the audience was the ability to "build bridges." Voorhees wasn't talking about the steel or concrete type, but the relationship type.

In Voorhees's opinion, job opportunities are plentiful for those who have these skills. Her clients are demanding that future employees have both the technical skills and the soft skills to get the job done.

Use What We Have
Universities do a good job educating the analytical skills. Soft skills are developed another way. Mentoring is a good channel to accomplish this. Training programs that APWA offers are also a good avenue. We need to be sure we are mentoring our younger employees and getting them into training programs that expand those soft skills.

Voorhees believes the candidates who meet these requirements are in short supply. She even quoted an Australian official on the shortage of qualified candidates who reportedly said, "Engineers are an endangered species."

If this is the case, then Dr. Russell is quite correct in saying that the H1B visa program is only a short-term fix. Talented competition will not only be regional, but international as well.

The shortage is accelerating. According to Voorhees, in 1971 26% of Village/City Managers were under 30. By 2000, this had dropped to 3%. In other words, our workforce has aged significantly in the past 30 years. Is it because young people aren't entering the public workforce? Are they leaving before they become part of the senior leadership team? It is unclear. Nevertheless, there is a shortage of a talent pool from which to draw.

Do What We Can
So what does all of this have to do with the question we originally asked?

We asked, "How does a farmer grow a new crop each year?" Perhaps the way farmers work will give us some guidance on both solving staffing problems and growing a more diverse workforce.

Members of the Chicago Metro Chapter listen to Dr. Jeffrey Russell and Heidi Voorhees discuss diversity issues in the workplace.

Each year after the crop is harvested, the farmer puts in his order for seeds for next year. She fertilizes the field and repairs the equipment—all for the purpose of being ready to grow next year's crop so we can sustain ourselves.

Are we as an industry doing this? Are we ordering the seeds—telling the world we have good-paying jobs available for them? Are we fertilizing the fields—letting our young people know early in their education about civil engineering and public works (this includes outreaching to young women and minorities)? Finally, are we keeping the equipment in good repair—do our professional societies encourage strong mentoring programs for our youth?

In the last part of Arthur Ashe's quote—"Do what we can"—his challenge is directed at individuals and professional associations to take the actions that are within our grasp. Support of APWA's diversity activities and outreach is one avenue we can all take.

Joel Koenig is a Past President of the Chicago Metro Chapter and is a current member of the national Diversity Committee. He can be reached at (630) 907-7025 or