Project Staffing: Do You Know Who’s Working for You?

by Jeff Yirak, P.E., CPMP, LEED AP BD+C, O+M

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

Whether its groceries, clothes, or commissioning consultants, more and more consumers and clients are interested in what they’re getting for the price they’re paying. While we may not come with stickers denoting us as local and organic, every consultant balances the level of skill required for a task with the cost of providing that skill or individual. A savvy consumer does their homework to learn or confirm whether this balance actually equates to value for them.

A quick scan through the Building Commissioning Association’s Career Listings or a search for “commissioning” on any number of job search websites will yield a variety of titles: commissioning engineer, specialist, startup engineer, technician, professional, agent, and so forth. With everyone calling their staff something different, how do you know what you’re getting? Using Wood Harbinger as an example, this article will explore how commissioning projects are staffed, and what value each member of the commissioning provider’s team brings to the project.

Roles and Responsibilities

Despite this variety of titles and roles, the commissioning staff pool is comprised of 3-4 different levels of experience and talent: entry level; engineer to senior engineer, with or without certifications and/or discipline specialty; and project manager/team leader. Wood Harbinger, for example, has three categories of commissioning staff: the Project Manager, the Commissioning Engineer, and the Commissioning Technician.

Project Manager

The Project Manager develops the commissioning program with the proposal, selects staff for the project based on their skills and availability, and maintains client contact. He or she has a high degree of technical ability and assists the rest of the team with commissioning issues and strategy. The Project Manager has experience in each of the tasks of the commissioning program and can step in to assist the Commissioning Engineer from a mentoring or manpower standpoint. The value of this role is evidenced by his or her ability to anticipate the needs of the project, including what obstacles or schedule impacts may be on the horizon. By thinking ahead, the Project Manager effectively leads the team and avoids delays. The Project Manager focuses on high-value contributions, and plays a larger role during critical junctures, such as design review, functional test development, or trend log analysis.

Commissioning Engineer

The Commissioning Engineer is the core of the commissioning team. This role handles the heavy lifting on a commissioning project, analyzing system operation and solving problems in the field. The Commissioning Engineer is a professional engineer or engineer-in-training who brings technical ability and professionalism to the project. Many individuals in this level of role will have or seek one or more certifications; Wood Harbinger has a Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP) on staff, serving as a lead Commissioning Engineer and Project Manager. Sometimes these individuals are called Commissioning Authorities or Commissioning Providers, but these titles are industry labels, not staff roles. Our Project Manager may serve as the Commissioning Authority/Provider on a particular job, or that function may be satisfied by the Commissioning Engineer. We exercise flexibility with these titles to best serve each project.

The Commissioning Engineer leads the development of the commissioning specification and commissioning plan. He or she is the expert on the commissioning process and works with the Project Manager to craft and execute the commissioning program. The Commissioning Engineer collaborates with the Commissioning Technicians and other staff to accomplish the commissioning tasks, such as site inspections, installation checklist development, and functional testing. The Commissioning Engineer takes the lead during the field testing and leads the commissioning meetings with the client and the rest of the commissioning team.

Commissioning Technician

Wood Harbinger, being an engineering consulting firm, naturally began by staffing commissioning projects with engineers. We continue to draw on the design disciplines to support commissioning projects when those projects have unique design elements or system challenges. We recognized that other industry talent existed, however, and we sought to create a space for individuals who did not come from an engineering background, but whose detail-oriented approach and perspective make them a good fit for commissioning tasks. From this, the Commissioning Technician category emerged. These individuals have a high degree of mechanical aptitude or electrical system interest and intuition, but for a variety of reasons don’t come from a four-year engineering degree background.

Commissioning Technicians support the Commissioning Engineers in developing commissioning documentation, conducting field investigations and functional testing, and analyzing data. This tends to be an entry-level position; a Commissioning Technician isn’t expected to work independently. Since our site safety program usually requires two staff members to be on-site at a time, the Commissioning Technician acts in a safety and support capacity. We encourage those individuals who qualify for the Fundamental of Engineering (FE) exam to take and pass the exam, thus earning an Engineer-in-Training (EIT) status and promoting them to Commissioning Engineer positions when they are ready for that next level of responsibility and performance.

Team Member Participation

A typical commissioning project (if there is such a thing as “typical!”) team for Wood Harbinger consists of the Project Manager, one or more Commissioning Engineers, and one or more Commissioning Technicians, all performing some level of service. Our commissioning group is more vertically integrated, so our diversity of staffing is part necessity as well as strategy.

The Project Manager, performing the duties outlined above, contributes to about 15% of the whole project effort, based on hours of participation. The Commissioning Authority or lead Commissioning Engineer conducts about 35% of the work, with the remaining 50% split between two or more Commissioning Engineers or Commissioning Technicians. By having 50% of the project executed by the Project Manager or senior Commissioning Engineer, we ensure the appropriate amount of guidance and oversight is provided to the rest of the staff and the entire commissioning team. This proportionality is adapted to each project, with more technical projects weighed toward senior staff participation, while repetitive tasks are conducted by more junior staff. Practice makes perfect, after all!

The Cost Factor

As with most things, an increase in talent, experience, or ability comes at an increase in cost and price, but also with an increase in quality. This is where you really start to weigh value. Commissioning is not a commodity service; the “lowest bid is the best” approach doesn’t yield the best results. Lowest price likely equates to a staffing model that is like a short pyramid with a wide base: most of the work is going to be completed by inexperienced staff. That’s all too common, or you can anticipate that elements of the project scope have been left out. Conversely, highest price may directly correlate to an overuse of senior staff or overloading the project scope. Either way, it takes a deeper look to determine value. It usually doesn’t take a truckload of people to commission a project, so it’s easy to pair a seasoned provider with a junior provider to balance experience and budget. This arrangement enables the team to provide competitive market rates while maintaining a high percentage of senior team member involvement. We have developed our staffing model around this balanced configuration; we’re more like a totem pole, with individuals at each level bringing value.

Our experience has shown that our project staffing model is effective in terms of cost as well as productivity. We plan from the top down, identifying the contribution of highly-talented (and thus highly-compensated) individuals, then provide them the support they need to augment the project plan. Staffing a team this way makes sense; we ensure the talent and leadership needed to make the project a success is provided, and then support that leadership with the staffing they need to be effective one project at a time, mindful of the unique needs of each client and project.

Know Who You’re Getting

Since project staffing contributes to the overall project success, a savvy client should request referral points of contact and ask prior customers whether or not adequate staff, talent, and oversight was provided on past projects. This track record will prove whether a consultant’s project staffing model is effective or not. While some firms may load the project with inexperienced, low-cost staff, we believe the client is better-served when the project is managed efficiently with the right level of talent, even if the composite billing rate is higher in the proposal.

Whether groceries, clothes, or commissioning consultants, a little background information helps determine the true value of goods or services. By the way, Wood Harbinger is a locally-grown firm with locally-sourced, free-range …uh… staff!

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