Dealing with Bad Economic News

9 Dec, 2008 By: Robert Green

No doubt, times are tough, but there are things you can do to soften the effects of company cutbacks.

This past week I attended Autodesk University, where I taught some classes, gathered information on new products, and spoke to a lot of CAD managers.  Ordinarily I would write an event report to catch you up on the details, but this year I found the economic news so serious that I'm dedicating this issue to passing along some tips for surviving the downturn.  Here goes.

A Little History
Over the years, I've conducted informal surveys of CAD managers to gauge the economic stability of the companies we all work in.  I usually do the survey by a show of hands and ask the following questions: 

  • How many of you work in companies that have too much work to get done?
  • How many of you work in companies with good/normal workloads?
  • How many of you work in companies that are laying off?

Throughout 2006, while speaking at 35 CAD manager and user events, I asked the "laying off" question and counted exactly seven hands. Roughly 50% of the group indicated companies that had "too much" work, with the balance in the "good/normal" category.  Clearly 2006 was a good economic year, particularly for those in civil engineering and architectural industries.

In 2007, in the 42 CAD manager and user events I attended, a total of 18 hands went up in response to the "laying off" question with a relatively constant 50% or so of the hands showing companies that had "too much" work and the balance in the "good/normal" category.  I concluded, at the time, that 2007 was another good year and didn't deem the slightly higher number of layoffs to be a statistically large enough increase to worry about.  It seemed that civil engineering and architectural industries were still humming along, with all industries sharing in good times.

Throughout most of 2008, the results (even those events in September) showed roughly the same number of layoffs (though concentrated in companies that were tied to residential building) with far fewer (only 20% or so) responding that they were "too busy" with project work.  Clearly the pace of business was slowing during the beginning of 2008, but nobody (myself included) seemed overly worried about the trend at the time.

The Results at AU
In one of my large CAD management classes (about 250 students) at Autodesk University, I polled the audience using my normal questioning sequence and was stunned by the results.  I knew the news wouldn't be good, but I wasn't prepared for the magnitude of what I learned.  I counted eight hands in the "too busy" category and well over 50% of the room in the "laying off" category.  In fact, the number may have been more like 60%, but I'll use 50% as a benchmark just to be safe. 

I talked to several CAD managers who said that if their trip to AU hadn't been paid for months ago, they wouldn't have been able to attend.  I also spoke with two CAD managers who'd received their trip to AU as part of their severance package when laid off.  The only conclusion I can draw is that things are now as bad as they were good just two years ago. 

Surviving the Downturn
So if the economic situation is as bad as it appears, what can CAD managers do to survive the downturn and emerge in a stronger position when things get better?  I've given it some thought and will pass along the following recommendations:

  • Revamp your production skills.
  • Program more (or learn to).
  • Take on more tasks.
  • Standardize and train.

Revamp Production Skills
Are you out of the habit of doing production CAD work?  This may be the time to get back into the swing of production and beef up your skills.  The simple fact is that as workloads dwindle, production CAD talent will most likely be laid off, thus creating a shortage of production skilled labor.

So if a major project deadline were to come up and more production help were needed in the short term, the CAD manager with good production CAD skills could hop right in and get the project completed.  Being able to help in a production pinch is a great way to make sure that you'll be able to remain employed because you'll be a double threat.

It is the simple truth that CAD managers who can program have the ability to customize the CAD tools they use to achieve higher efficiency.  By creating custom AutoLISP, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), or even custom toolbars/menus, complex tasks can be simplified and CAD users can get more done in less time with fewer errors.

I've also found that my programming skills have allowed me to work in a wider variety of projects over the years, thus giving me more employment opportunities than if I couldn't program.  And in a tight economy, it is all about having as many skills and options as possible.

Take On New Tasks
In down times, your company may experience periods of low project workload, thus leaving you with less CAD to manage than normal.  At these times, the CAD manager who is willing to step up and assist with other nontraditional CAD tasks will be seen as a more valuable and flexible employee.

So consider tackling that server cleanup you've been putting off, try getting the print room organized, get your block/detail libraries standardized, go back through your standards documentation, etc.  Many of these tasks are probably within your ordinary purview but have been lower priority when things were busy, so get to them now.  Some of these tasks may be outside your normal area of influence but still need to get done, so volunteer.

As someone who's owned a business for years, I can tell you with certainty that employees who are willing to help with any job are those whom upper managers value highly, and they will be retained. So be part of the solution, no matter what!

Standardize and Train
To the extent that you have available time, you can always examine and refine your CAD standards and train users in their proper use.  So long as training is isolated to time in which users would be idle (in case of low workloads) there is no cost for you to conduct in-house training.  And any time you spend refining standards to make users more productive and facilitate training, is also a no-cost item to your company.

In busy times, tasks like refining standards and user training can be in conflict with billable hours and thus viewed as overhead.  During times of low workloads, these activities can actually lead to more productive employees when business picks back up with no real cost to the company.  So be ready to take on these tasks with any time you have available.

Summing Up
I hate being the bearer of bad news, but the reality is that the upcoming year looks like a tough one for CAD managers.  So rather than pretend everything is fine, I prefer to pass along productivity and skill building ideas to help you weather the storm.

It is my hope that you'll be able to use some of my recommendations to insulate yourself from layoffs and become more valuable in your current position.  And if the worst should happen, I believe that adhering to the strategies I've outlined will help you find employment faster.

Related content:CAD Management

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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