Business Strategies Series Part 2: Winning the talent war

How firms can successfully recruit and retain top talent in a tight marketplace.

Overwhelmingly, staff recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges that civil engineering firms struggle with. We truly are in the midst of a fierce talent war, and increasingly, firms are finding that their ability to grow and be successful is constrained by their ability to recruit and retain talent.

The stark reality is that there’s a limited and shrinking pool of available talent. Fewer students are graduating with engineering degrees, and those that do earn civil engineering degrees have more options and job opportunities outside of our industry. Additionally, it has become increasingly more common for seasoned engineers (at the project management level and above) to start their own consulting practices or to explore options with owners, developers, or the public sector. With the shrinking talent pool and more competition for the available talent, the question that all firms are asking is how can they successfully recruit and retain top talent in this tight marketplace?

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution and there isn’t any one thing that firms can do that will result in a talent solution. However, there are consulting engineering firms that have found success by heavily investing in creating a best workplace environment. Firms that are successful in creating an environment that truly values their employees through an emphasis on open communication, regular performance appraisals, competitive benefits, incentive compensation programs, and formalized professional development and training opportunities have demonstrated significantly higher success in recruiting and retaining top talent. Here are some of the practices that many best firms to work for engage in to stay competitive:

Trust and mutual respect—At the core, top management must create an environment of trust and mutual respect. Staff must trust that management always has their best interests at heart and that it is working to do the best by them. This requires leading from the top down, and having a president and top leadership that "walk the talk."

Open communication—Not only must firms practice open communication with all staff, but it also must be frequent and honest. Many firms feel that sharing information with staff can be dangerous, but that the best firms to work for find that firm leaders who promote sharing information firm-wide create employees who are more vested for the long-term with the company. For example, sharing your firm’s annual business plan with staff will help to create excitement about the firm’s future direction and show employees the critical role they play in the firm’s success. Giving project managers access to financial information will create more accountability and ownership on projects.

Accountability—There’s nothing worse than empty promises. Follow-through is absolutely critical. If you’ve promised ownership to an up-and-comer, you need to deliver. If you’ve outlined a certain career track for a next-generation leader, as a manager it’s your responsibility to work with that employee to help him or her reach their goals. If you say that you’re going to conduct a performance appraisal on a certain date, then it can’t be rescheduled two or three times.

Putting your money where your mouth is—All firms say and acknowledge that employees are their most important resource. Without the right staff and talent on board, firms can’t deliver projects, can’t serve clients, and can’t survive. Unfortunately, human resources is often one of the last budget items that firms allocate funds to. Allocating funds to a human resources budget is one of the first steps a firm should take to be prepared to win the talent war. Firms should plan for recruiting costs (such as job postings, career fairs, employee referrals, and relocation), in-house professional development and training programs, and other employee perks.

Success and growth—Employees want to be part of a successful and growing organization. Staff want new challenges. They want to be part of a firm that dominates the industry. The best talent is not content with being part of a firm that isn’t always striving to be number one.

Formal processes for recognition—Reward and recognition is extremely important to continue to motivate staff. Increasingly, firms are taking a hard look at the feedback mechanisms, performance appraisal, and incentive compensation systems they have in place. Recognition doesn’t have to come in a monetary form; it can be as simple as sending out a firm-wide e-mail letting everyone know of a job well-done or a new job that was won. Managers should be trained to provide regular feedback to staff and to celebrate their successes at an office, division, or firm level.

Addressing poor performance—As a manager and leader, a critical piece of your success is the ability to manage staff performance. This includes mentoring and coaching employees to high performance, but on the flip-side, it also means addressing poor performance. While everyone shies away from difficult or confrontational discussions, by not addressing poor performance, it will likely get even worse and can negatively influence staff who are performing well.

Emphasis on professional development—Every year, more firms are investing in professional development because training gives employees the tools to provide clients with the highest quality of work and the best service. Investing in training also demonstrates to employees the value placed on their long-term development within the firm. With the continued challenge in recruiting, firms also find that formalized training programs ramp up junior level staff so that they step into senior level roles more quickly.

Opportunities for career growth—It’s important that firms articulate a clear career path to employees so that they know how to move up in an organization. Don’t let age or experience prevent you from tracking employees toward project management, team leadership, or principal-ship. Map out long-term career paths with employees so that they understand what it will take to be successful in your organization.

High value on work-life balance—Today, everyone is trying to create a healthier work-life balance. Firms that are able to offer flexible work options will find it easier to attract and retain talent.

Sharing the wealth—In addition to having competitive compensation and benefits, the best firms aren’t afraid to share the wealth in other ways. More and more, firms are expanding the number of owners in a firm or increasing the percentage of bonus potential distributed so that more high-performers can have a larger share of the pie.
Track human resources statistics—Firms should track various performance statistics so that they can show how effective (or ineffective) their human resources management efforts are. Here is a list of questions that you should be able to answer about your firm: What is the percentage of voluntary vs. involuntary turnover? Why do employees voluntarily leave the firm? What’s your firm’s average cost per hire? How much money is the company spending on outside employment agency/recruiter fees vs. employment advertising/job postings? Which employment posting sites or recruiters yield employees with the longest retention rates? What’s the average time it takes to fill a position? How much does the firm spend on relocation? How much is spent on interviewing costs, particularly in the form of non-billable time?

While we know instinctively that employees are a firm’s most valuable commodity, this knowledge doesn’t always translate into the financial investment that most firms make. Top firms don’t make this mistake. They ensure that they have the best recruitment and retention programs in place, and they are winning the talent war.

Sarita Peng is a managing director with ZweigWhite, New York. Peng can be reached at

Do you work for a great firm? Apply for the Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For list. Go to for application information. The deadline is April 20, 2007.

Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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