Attracting and Retaining Municipal Engineers

As I read various small town articles around North America about municipal engineering, there is frequent news of municipalities that have just lost their city engineer and are looking for a replacement, or are trying to work out how to do without.

Having been subject to the brunt of one municipality’s decision to reduce technical engineering staff (to zero), and now being responsible for an engineering department in a (not quite as) small municipality, I understand the pressures faced with budgets and decisions that need to be made.

One article that caught my eye comes from Niagara Falls, NY:

The top engineering post in Niagara Falls municipal government has been vacant since the departure of former City Engineer Jeff Skurka in April of 2013.

In the interim, Mayor Paul Dyster’s administration has used a combination of department staffers and private engineering consultants to tend to projects that fall under the city’s responsibility.

Via: Editorial: Engineering void speaks to bigger issue

Niagara FallsReading on in the article, it seems that there are two issues at stake. The first is the residency requirement for the position, apparently intended to drive a larger portion of taxpayer-funded salaries back into the local economy. Policies such as this may drive away talent who may already happily live nearby, but may not wish to relocate for the position. I heard of similar policies in some municipalities in the West Kootenays of BC when we moved there in 2007. When offered a position in a neighbouring municipality, I was informed that I wouldn’t have to move there – I was surprised that it could even be a condition of employment!

The second issue raised in the article is one that is faced in all levels of government and particularly in municipalities across North America – politics and the longevity of the position. This may be one of the biggests issues that drives many talented professionals away from the government sector.

In the case of the city engineer job, council members were right to think a sitting mayor entering the final year of his term would struggle to find a qualified engineer willing to move into the city without a higher level of confidence about the longevity of the move.

The net result is a city of over 50,000 people (wikipedia) without a City Engineer for almost two years, relying on in-house staff and likely expensive consultants to cover the shortfall, costing the community financially and placing them in a leadership void. City Engineers are the infrastructure heros of our communities, we need to do more to attract and retain  top talent into the sector to ensure that the infrastructure foundation of our communities are sound.



Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.