Know when to leave a sinking ship

Jan. 3, 2007
The unspoken truth about projects is that they all come to an end, according to Dirk Willard in this month's Field Notes column. The key, he says, is knowing when to leave.

“Don’t talk about this to anyone.” It was ringing in my ears. Later, I found out that all the project engineers got the same message. There we were working on a Saturday while the manager, who wasn’t a contractor, was enjoying a day with his family. The mood was glum. So, of course, we discussed our reviews and the truth spilled out. We had all been hired for the duration of the project, which, apparently, would end early, in about three months. This was one of my first big shocks as a young project engineer. I was gleefully working 12 to 18 hours a day to build a plant — I would never see it operate. I didn’t handle myself gracefully during the next three months. My attitude changed from up-beat, all-go/no-quit to resentful. Since then, I have learned to see the signs and to leave on good terms.

In my next job, in manufacturing, I was more watchful. I made contacts further up, well beyond my boss. When I joined the company it was in expansion mode, then I noticed a few changes. Contractors started to disappear — the downsizing had begun. Getting a second opinion seemed sensible; I asked one of my bosses if I was in danger. Joe’s response was customarily blunt, “Unless you’re the top guy in the department, I’d be looking.” My annual review confirmed my fears: I was being earmarked for downsizing. Since then, I have talked to other engineers with similar experiences. One young engineer in Delaware had a new-born when trouble began. After six months he had enough and quit.

Unlike many people in the department, I’d been through takeovers, recessions, down-sizings, and worked as a contractor. I’d learned a little about selling myself. Every year, I updated my résumé. I kept a spreadsheet summarizing my accomplishments, including: a description of the work, money saved, my responsibilities, budgets, etc.

An awareness of the economic cycle is important. Knowing when to leave a sinking ship is at least as important as knowing it’s sinking. Employment was turning south when the downsizing began in 1997. If I waited a year, I’d be looking for a job during a recession. I decided to act immediately rather than do the best I could and hope I survived a little longer, which is the obvious strategy if the economy is poor.

Several earlier experiences have taught me to cultivate good working relationships with several recruiters. Be careful not to “muddy the water,” one fellow cautioned. Choose one recruiter for an area and keep that person informed of positions you’ve applied for. Not all recruiters are the same. The good ones want to know you; the poor recruiters only send forms.

And, most of all: be available for relocation. One senior engineer built a beautiful house and wouldn’t leave it. He is still looking for work two years later.

By working diligently, I made my departure in three months; those who stayed suffered through a union strike and a rushed plant turn-around; slowly, painfully, they were sifted out of the company in a process that took more than four years.

Sometimes, the only positions available are with engineering and construction (E&C) firms or in consulting. I took a position with such a firm in Pittsburgh. E&C firms live from contract to contract — robbing Peter to pay Paul. The cash from the last sale pays the overruns from previous projects. Trouble signs are easy to read. When the sales engineers aren’t bringing in fresh jobs, that’s when you should start considering your future. Another sign is when it takes forever to get the check for travel expenses.

Company size is no protection. The best protection is a savvy sales staff. In a recession, smart salesmen “buy the job.” That’s when the outfit makes enough money to stay in the game by sacrificing its profit. Our office, at a large firm, went under a few months after 9/11 when our salesmen lost six contracts in a row. At E&C firms, always have your résumé in play with the recruiters.

When the contracts finally ended at the Pittsburgh firm my boss asked me to complete some project details before leaving in two weeks. Other engineers said forget it. I turned in the work. A few years later, I was hired back in part because of my knowledge of their process but also because I was a professional. Leaving tactfully will not only assure you a good reference but may even lead to future employment at the firm.

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