True or false about working in the private sector

Marianne Bom & Rie Jerichow, Publicér

As a recently graduated engineer, you may have a lot of ideas about what it is like to work in a private company. What is true and what is false?

Thomas Hall is Senior Vice President in People & Communication in the engineering company COWI. Photo: COWI.

Thomas Hall is Senior Vice President in People & Communication in the engineering company, COWI. It is his responsibility to make sure that there are enough hands and heads in the global company, which has 6,700 employees in 35 countries. That is why Thomas Hall knows the working conditions in the company especially well. Here he tells you what is right and wrong in a list of claims about the working conditions in the private sector for engineers.

It is more the rule than the exception to work overtime.
“It is true that engineers sometimes have to put in extra hours in a project where extra work is needed. Other times, the company will show flexibility when the employee needs less pressure. At COWI, we know that we can only attract and keep engineers if we create an attractive workspace. So the flexibility goes both ways. The key is having a good dialogue between manager and employee, and we can tell from our job satisfaction surveys that there definitely is trust. So the employees can send a signal if they have special needs, and the manager can say “be careful” when some employees are working a lot overtime.”

It is hard to unite work life in the private sector with small kids at home.
“This is a myth. We would not have so many younger employees if we could not create a framework for engineers having children and making families. The bigger engineering companies have become good at this. We would also have a lot of issues in our company and with getting employees, if you could not unite work life and family life. This is why we have guidelines for how we organize, so some can work less, while others work more, depending on their family needs. It might be a bit more difficult with parental leave in a small company with five employees, and here in our company, we can experience some challenges too, if there are two in the same small department who need parental leave. But then you need to find a solution.”

The work environment is very competitive.
“In this regard, there are big differences in the private sector. There are some partner owned consulting companies, where there is a lot of competition to get up in the system and get more power. But generally I do not experience the engineering business as being like that. It is a more humanistic approach, and we also have a lot of companies owned by foundations, where the pressure is lower compared to partner owned and stock noted companies, and then it is no good to have a competitive approach towards your own colleagues. Of course an individual may be driven by a need to be innovative and do their best, but it is balanced in the group projects where collaboration is more important than competition.”

Mistakes are not tolerated.
“From our point of view, this is true in regards to our engineering assignments. This is of course due to the clients wanting no mistakes. We make big infrastructure projects, like the Copenhagen metro, and there cannot be mistakes. It would be terrible if something were to happen, like the highway bridge in Genova, which fell down in the fall of 2018. We have systems and work processes that ensure that there are no mistakes, and the employee does not have to worry about failing. There will always be a more experienced coworker to talk to. But alongside the daily tasks, we in COWI focus on evolving and creating new and innovative ways of doing things – in these kinds of idea phases and innovation processes, it is completely okay to make mistakes, since you will not evolve if you are too scared to make mistakes.”

Recently graduated engineers have to match their colleagues level of knowledge from day one.
“There is no expectation of this. But I can only smile and say that it is not strange if the graduate may think so when they read the job listings. You may want to look at the demands on the listings as more of a wishlist, and then focus on what the listing mentions as minimum requirements. We do know that there is a lot you have to learn as
a recent graduate.”

The salary is better in the private sector.
“That is true. Sometimes I worry if the public sector can attract and keep the most skilled. Previously, you had a lower salary in the public sector, but a higher sense of job security. It does not seem like this is a fact anymore.”

It makes more sense to work in the public sector than in the private.
“I disagree. In the private sector, there are some types of companies like weapon and tobacco companies, which cannot honour the wish of a ‘purpose’, which a lot of graduates have now. But most of the engineering companies can. COWI has exclusively projects which are focused on making a better world. We may have been bad at expressing this. We are owned by a foundation, and our purpose is not only to make money. We work for sustainable solutions.”