Your Responsibility to Young People

Jan 02, 2006

As the new year gets ready to start, most companies in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business are gearing up to hire. Sure— most of the needs are for experienced staffers— but, since there are never enough of them, there will undoubtedly be entry-level employees brought on as well. The problem is that many firms don’t really think about what their responsibilities are to these bright-eyed, full-of-wonder young people— these new, 18-to-25-year-old architects, engineers, planners, designers, and scientists— or those who are in still in school working on their degrees. These people have some high expectations for their first “real job,” i.e., one that relates to their education. And the bottom line is soon after starting in their first job, their hopes and dreams will either look like they could become a reality or will be dashed into a thousand pieces. Unfortunately, more dreams are destroyed than come true. The truth is, most companies in our business do a pretty miserable job living up to their responsibilities as employers of neophytes. Here’s some of what we do wrong and how we could do it better. Young people want training. And I am NOT just talking about COMPUTER TRAINING, though undoubtedly that will be a big part of the training any entry-level staffer is likely to receive. Instead, they need training in the business of our business. The schools turning out the new grads we hire aren’t, for the most part, providing this type of training. Many new graduates from colleges of architecture have only taken a single three-hour practice management course, and that most likely dealt with contracts and liability more so than how to actually run a design or planning firm. Since there isn’t a nice outside course you can send people to that tells them everything they need to know to get started in our business, you will probably have to develop one on your own. Spend some effort on this. It’s worth it to do it well. Young people want mentors and role models. I hesitate to utter the word “mentor” because it’s been so overused in most discussions of management in our industry. This is NOT a once-a-year lunch with someone you have never met. It is taking the time to really get to know someone as an individual and then giving that person a lot of feedback and advice such that they become successful. That’s what real mentoring is all about. Again, most of us do a lousy job here. Those who want to be mentored have to face their responsibility to seek out a mentor. And mentors have to do their part by being accessible, showing interest, and making time to build a relationship of trust. This is not a process that can just be mandated by top management. Young people want a commitment from you. While it’s common for those of us who are older to bash the younger people for their lack of commitment, I think we need to look at the other side of this equation. How much commitment do we make to them? Many companies, when the workload gets soft, go right to those who were last brought in— and especially those at the lowest level in the hierarchy— for workforce reductions. In the A/E/P business we have a real tendency to cut from the bottom. That’s why so many firms that have had big revenue declines are top-heavy. This management practice reinforces the idea that companies have no loyalty to their employees— so why should employees be loyal to the company? Ditto for co-op students. They are planning their entire academic experience around working alternating semesters for a single company, and getting some valuable (and varied) experience out of that. Companies that fail to bring back co-ops because of budget problems cause tremendous havoc for these students. And companies that just give their co-ops repetitive and low-level tasks are not living up to their responsibilities, either. You just can’t do stuff like this and expect a commitment to work hard (and long) from anyone. Young people want to work in a well-managed organization. That means that you operate at a profit, collect your money, do a business plan every year and follow it, invest in the necessary I.T. and marketing, and a whole lot more. It also means that you DON’T do anything illegal or unethical that jeopardizes the company, you don’t co-mingle your personal expenses with those of the business, you don’t have constant infighting of your principals and managers, and you don’t do anything that puts their place of employment at unnecessary risk. I can see the young people in your office lobbies now, wearing their best dresses and suits, waiting for their interviews. Put yourself in their shoes. Live up to your responsibilities, and you will be paid back handsomely in the years to come. Originally published 1/02/2006

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