From the early years of my prior life as a utility engineer, I can remember several co-workers who were pure specialists in a particular field. Charlie knew everything there was to know about transformers. Jan seemed to know more about circuit breakers than the manufacturer's reps did. And if you had a question about conductor, you would go find Joe. It didn't seem to matter what the question was, these guys had an answer.
But that kind of expertise wasn't exclusive to my office. I also ran into the same type of technical specialists when I would travel on business. You could usually pick these people out of the crowd based on their appearance and confident demeanor. They spoke at technical conferences and led discussion groups on the development of new standards. Some of them worked for other utility companies or were employed by a manufacturer. Others represented themselves as independent consultants or worked for consulting engineering firms. As a young engineer, I looked up to these guys and aspired to one day fill their shoes.
But over the last 15 years or so I've witnessed a dramatic change in the electrical industry. Unpredictable construction markets, fierce competition, and intense pressure on corporate earnings have forced companies to do more with less. Most companies have adopted a new corporate vision of niche diversification and shift-on-the-fly adaptation to maintain a foothold in a rapidly evolving global economy. And this month's cover story by Amy Fischbach, “The Top 40 Electrical Design Firms,” bears that out.
Many of the firms in this year's listing turned to diversification to survive the economic downturn, shift in construction markets, and delay or cancellation of projects. For example, to compensate for the lull in power plant construction, Burns and Roe have turned their attention to the waste-to-energy market. Edwards and Kelcey designed cell sites and data centers during the dot-com boom, but is now focusing its efforts on the education market. And many other top 40 players looked to various overseas markets when the domestic market went in the tank.
While good for the industry as a whole, the change was bad for the specialist. This corporate philosophy trickled down to the employee level, and the highly specialized — and highly paid — technical gurus were the first to be cut in corporate downsizing initiatives and early retirement programs. One by one, they've all but disappeared from the scene, leaving the remaining technical staff members to take on more responsibility and perform tasks outside the technical arena.
This may make good business sense, but it could ultimately have a negative effect on how the next generation of engineers approach their work. They're learning that it doesn't pay to dedicate themselves to a specific technology or product type and become the best in their field because doing so in today's world could limit their job possibilities and even shorten their careers.
There's no question this development is bad for us as individuals; it takes away from the prestige of being the best technical person you can be. But what effect will it have on the quality and safety of our electrical designs? Only time will tell. But one thing's for sure, today's motto is “Diversify or Die.”