Porcupine or Super Bowl, I Doubt It

4 01 2011

Although it’s a bit like the chicken and egg, my most important task is recruiting and retaining top talent.  We have a machine in place to land top talent from college campuses.  I’m quite convinced of that.  But with the sort of growth we are undergoing, we also need to recruit staff, primarily engineers at this point, with substantial experience and expertise in energy-using systems.  This would be easy if there were engineers in the market with 5-10 years experience like guys we have in that range.  It isn’t the case.

I work extensively with a recruiter and I provide constant feedback on candidates she forwards to help her better understand what we are looking for.  I’ve also written rambling explanations of what we are looking for.  Sometimes I get concerned that she thinks we are impossible to satisfy.  Well, we are almost impossible to satisfy.

First, a mini rant on recruiters.  I’ve been told by probably three recruiters that they, unlike their competition, will thoroughly vet candidates, ensure they meet our every qualification and then after a few weeks they will present a miracle list of 4-5 candidates all of whom we would just love to have on staff.  They would be so good, we might take two – even if we only need one and then we would be crying because we’d have to turn the other three down.  Fuggedabahdit!  The recruiter’s selling point is that they are supposed to save me time by not having to wade through a few dozen candidates.  Bull.  All this miracle recruiting service does is delay the process because the dream team they present to me has no more usable talent on average than 50 people a neophyte recruiter fresh out of college could find for us.  Give me the 50.

Back to my recruiting exploits; last week I was writing up a two column table for our recruiter, with one column describing what we want and the other what we want to avoid.  In the “don’t bother” column I essentially concluded we don’t want anyone from the competition, which generally speaking is where one should first look.  I’m talking about competition in the energy efficiency program business.

Why is this?  Quite frankly, because the engineering on average in this industry is poor, but it is also poor to a large extent in the systems design industry.  On the other hand, at least in the design industry, things have to be made to somehow work.  They may work like crap and waste energy up the wazoo but at least there is a required problem “solving” element.  In the EE sector, engineers can operate in a parallel universe their entire career – which brings to mind the myth of experience, a topic of another rant.

How do I know the engineering in the EE industry is poor?  Because we do a lot of program evaluation across the country, from east coast to great lakes to the west coast and beyond  – close to 20 utilities in about a dozen states.  Even stuff that a sociologist should be able to pull off is screwed up – like verifying a variable freq drive has auto controls installed, or knowing the difference between a heat recovery wheel for fresh air and a heat recovery wheel for dehumidification unit installed (unit is a god-awful pick for a northern climate anyway – design engineer should be fined, maybe spend a couple nights in jail too).  The latter resulted in a massive incentive for gas savings in a new construction program.  Uh, ouch!

So what sort of experienced people are we looking for?  Smart engineers with high GPAs but not too much experience; generally engineers who understand how systems work, how they use energy, and how they should be controlled – really understand it.  In general, best candidates come from smaller firms where they have interaction with the guy at the top and mentoring by people who know what they are doing.  On the flip side, competition sets up offices in states where they start running programs and they hire “experienced” engineers to work in those branch offices.  All I’ll say is it’s not worth looking at these candidates.  It’s probably as hard as finding a porcupine in my woods – I did experience a real live (and real big!) porcupine in the wild here in cheesehead land so although not impossible I’m not sure whether I’ll see another one or see the ViQueenies win a super bowl in my lifetime.

Why not too experienced?  Because engineers are either good or crappy and if they are good, they care about what their clients think and after being taken to the woodshed a few times for things the client doesn’t like they become calloused cynical curmudgeons unwilling to bend or change.  They play it safe.  This is typically not conducive to saving energy.  Let me know if you need an explanation as to why experienced but crappy engineers are no good.

To be sure, there are definitely excellent engineers in the industry.  We work for some of them as subs.  Others have reviewed our work for program QC and they are very good.  After throwing stones in my glass house I must break a few windows.  Admittedly, we’ve gotten comments back from outside engineering firms that make me think the guy on the other end must think we’re idiots.  However, rather than whining, crying, and denying, we get the things resolved and take long term corrective action.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Home Field Disadvantage

16 11 2010

As mentioned on these pages before, stuff that doesn’t work well for me will be tolerated for maybe a couple bad experiences before I move on to something else.  When something starts to go haywire, you don’t want to be around me and you certainly don’t want your children around me.  Probably the worst thing to go haywire is a computer because I know I can’t take my frustration out on the computer since that will obviously make things worse, so the vocabulary gets a little extra spicy.

Back in about 1983, I was shopping for my first car.  Growing up in rural America farm country, 90% of vehicles on the road were made by the big three, now known as the big one and the incompetent and crappy two.  One of the vehicles I test drove among the several Detroit models was a Honda Accord.  This was back when they were the size of today’s Civic Coupe.  I remember it to this day.  It was like the first decent micro or import beer I tested, although I can’t remember what that was if you know what I mean.

The Accord was unlike anything I had driven before.  The suspension was firm and it handled crisply.  It accelerated very well for a car with a small engine.  It was a quite ride.  But it cost $2,000 more than my second choice at the time, a 1983 Ford Mustang so I bought that.  What a piece of junk.  This was a car that was transformed from the 70s muscle car to a wimpy plasticized rattlebox.  It always had some sort of natural frequency in the drive train that vibrated such that the rearview mirror gave me a blurred vision of where I had been.  I took Wrigley’s chewing gum wrappers and rolled them up to stuff behind the chincy dashboard cutout with a cheesy faux wood pattern to keep it from buzzing from the vibration.

Today I have very high expectations for any vehicle I own.  I bought the Acura RSX new seven and a half years ago and piled about 100,000 miles on thus far.  The only things I’ve replaced is oil, filters, tires, wiper blades, a battery, and windshield fluid.  There have been no mechanical or electrical problems but last week the engine light came on and I thought maybe my “luck” was up.  No problem.  I think it was gas-cap issue.

I have no allegiance to buying “American” stuff.  I’m an open-market competition advocate.  It’s my money and I’m going to buy what I think is the best value, including John Deere yard and garden equipment.  It’s expensive.  People have told me this or that brand is just as good.  Sure.  You go right ahead and buy your heap of lightweight, rattly sheet metal, belt-shredding, piece of crap.

In some distant precincts, or maybe its just certain buyers, there seems to be a strong home turf advantage for hiring EE consultants.  Alien firms are virtually locked out of the market.  In some cases we’ve been on projects where we needed to use local engineering firms because they know the market, technologies, and how to handle the vastly different conditions.  Paahleeeese!  Does the first law of thermodynamics not apply on planet Z?  Does water not freeze at 32F?  Do the customers have two heads?  If so just tell us which one to talk to.  We’ll adapt to anything.

There may also be perception that if you have to get on a plane that you can’t be responsive, and that travel time and expense may cost a fortune.  Responsiveness may be an issue on the other side of the ocean seven time zones away, but not in the continental U.S.  Travel expense is also probably an overhyped disadvantage.  It takes more time to drive within some service territories to distant end users than it does to fly some places.  It takes no more time or money to fly to the coasts than it does to fly to Ohio or Missouri.  Actually, flying to coastal destinations is typically cheaper than flying a couple states away because there is far more competition.

In some cases however, there is a need to have a Johnnie on the spot and we make it so, or make it clear in a proposal that we will make it so.  The latter doesn’t seem to work.

Programs that lock out alien firms are doing their ratepayers no favors.  They lock out innovation, new ideas and possibly more efficient and effective ways of doing things.  When we bid on local jobs, we take nothing for granted.  I feel we deserve nothing for merely being one of the closest firms.  Once hired regardless of where, it is our mission to have the client so pleased they wished they’d never have to go out for bids again.

In other cases, I think buyers may have something like Stockholm Syndrome and they become sympathetic to their consultant’s predictably unreliable and tardy work.  This is probably universal and not just for EE work but other consulting and even other businesses entirely.  But hey, the consultant is cheap and the buyer knows what they are getting: crap.  But there are no surprises or disappointments because expectations are lower than Brett Favre’s salvage value.


This just in: USA Today reports that $300 million spent on just over 600,000 appliances ($500 per appliance!!!) is achieving $27.5 million in annual energy savings.  Doing the math, that’s about an 11 year “payback” on program investment.  To put this in perspective, a rule of thumb for EE programs run by utilities is total program cost to savings ratio (“payback”) is 1.5.  Yes, the decimal point is in the right place.  Do we need further reason to lock the federal government out of EE?

The spokeswoman says energy savings were only one goal of the program.  Yes.  The other was a political payout followed by a glut of used appliances and a drought of new appliance sales.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP