The Myth of the “Low-Man-on-the-Totem-Pole”

The Myth of the “Low-Man-on-the-Totem-Pole”

There are many reasons why civil engineers and other professionals choose not to explore new opportunities when I call them, and many of the reasons are valid:

  • Just received a promotion
  • Satisfied with career progression
  • Great culture
  • Great pay
  • Exposure to challenging projects
  • Surrounded by a great team
  • Short commute

The list goes on and on.

There is one excuse (cough cough)…sorry, reason…that just does not hold water with me, and that is the ol’

“Well, the economy and civil engineering market are great right now, but if I leave my current company to join a new firm and the market goes sour, I will be low-man-on-the-totem-pole and will be the first to be let go.”





And it is that excuse where I draw the line; I believe it to be pure BS.


Well, as simple as this traditional low-man-on-the-totem-pole theory may be, I believe it to be a copout for one’s lack of confidence or ability. I mean really.

Let me paint a quick picture here.


Imagine you are the president of your own consulting civil engineering firm with 25 people. Business is booming. Clients are actually knocking on YOUR door and seeking your firm out. You are turning away business. It is time to hire another Project Manager. Or another Project Engineer. Or another CAD Technician. Or maybe even all three!

Let’s say you hire a new Project Manager, and after a year, though your other Project Manager that has been with you for six years, the new Project Manager is running circles around him. He is more efficient, and he has increased revenues by bringing in new business in the amount of $1M. The Project Manager who has been with you for six years has been loyal, he does a decent job at managing projects, but he just does not have the same initiative. Times get a little lean, who are you going to let go?

Let’s say you hire a new Project Engineer. After her first full year, her utilization is 100%, and she has mastered the CAD and specialty design software that is required to successfully complete projects. Her counterpart, who has been employed by your firm for four years and who has the equal amount of experience and has a utilization rate of near 100%, believes mastering the engineering software is a waste of time and keeps looking for ways to bypass that part of her career. Times get lean, who are you going to let go?

Let’s say you hire a new CAD Technician. After his first full year of employment, he has taken initiative to become proficient in AutoCAD Civil 3D, an upgrade that you purchased but that your other CAD Technician who has been with you for 10 years has been resistant to using, even though more and more clients are asking for it. Both technicians are reliable and loyal and do good work. Times get a little lean, who are you going to let go?

How do you feel about the low-man-on-the-totem-pole theory now?

I’m not saying that the low-man-on-the-totem-pole philosophy does not bare its head every once in a while, but if you have confidence in your ability to bring a high level of value to an organization, this theory can easily be squashed.

And that’s my two cents on this topic…please share yours!

  • Matt Richardi, PE
    Posted at 12:28h, 15 February Reply

    I agree with your general assessment but disagree with your thought process on the “copout”. I personally think that those that use the “low-man” excuse are actually quite comfy in their current environment and moving to a new environment will require them to put forth more effort than they care to expend (laziness). They have created a situation at work which follows with the 2nd person in your three comparisons. The people that give you that excuse is the 2nd person, the one that doesn’t want to do more, and therefore can’t add value to the new job if they move.

    • Matt Barcus
      Posted at 12:51h, 15 February Reply

      Hi Matt, thanks for reading, and than you for sharing. I definitely agree with you regarding those who are comfortable/content, or as you so gracefully referred to as lazy 🙂 In fact, I discussed this very topic in another blog entry I wrote:

      Thanks again for taking the time to read, please feel free to share!

      Continued Success,


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