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The 2006 Best Structural Engineering Firms To Work For Contest results

Imagine confetti falling, horns blowing, hands clapping, and people shouting as you review the list of winners of the 2006 Best Structural Engineering Firms To Work For Contest, because these distinguished firms deserve the fanfare of an exuberant celebration!

Structural Engineer hosted the fourth annual Best Structural Engineering Firms To Work For Contest to honor firms that offer top-notch work environments to its employees, as well as to encourage continued excellence in structural engineering work-place practices. In addition to announcing this year’s winners, this wrap-up of the 2006 contest provides an in-depth review of what makes these firms great places to work. Reading about these impressive firms should generate an idea or two that could enhance the practices at your firm. Perhaps you’ll realize that your firm is already doing many of the same things for which these winning firms are honored—a signal for you to enter the competition next year.

The contestants

When reviewing the results of a contest of this nature, it is always helpful to consider what types of firms entered, so that you can best gauge how your own firm compares. This year, competing firms ranged in employee size from 10 to more than 500 employees; the median was 51.5 employees. Most firms that entered had at least one branch office; the median number of branch offices (excluding headquarters) was 1.5. The oldest firm in the competition was established in the early 1900s and the youngest was established in 1997. Most firms in the competition are privately owned and have a median of seven owners. Additionally, they have a board of directors with a median of five members; most firms do not have an outside (non-employee) board member.

Also worth noting is that the firms that entered the contest are growing and profitable. The majority reported a 10 percent to 20 percent average annual gross revenue growth rate over the past three fiscal years. Additionally, the majority of firms had a net pre-tax, pre-bonus profit/loss margin of 15 percent or more.

Thirty-four firms competed in the 2006 competition, the same as in the 2005 competition. Remarkably, nearly half of the firms (16 of 34 competing firms) are new this year. Ten firms in the top 15 and honorable mention lists are new to the contest this year. Additionally, four of the top 15 winners from the 2005 contest did not enter this year, and three of the firms on the 2005 honorable mention list didn’t either. Therefore, you can’t assume that if a firm isn’t on the 2006 list that it dropped in ranking! Unlike college rankings, which rate the same schools year-after-year, this contest changes annually. And, since our grading process rates firms against the pool of competitors, the quality of the applicants can affect the outcome dramatically.

In the lead

First place: Walter P Moore (WPM)—WPM is no stranger to the limelight in the Best Structural Engineering Firm To Work For Contest. It rose from third place in 2003 to second place in 2004, and then took the top prize in 2005 and again this year. What has the firm done to climb the ranks and then stay on top? Plenty.

A trait considered essential to those firms ranked as the "Best Firms To Work For" is continuous improvement. Judge Carol Metzner, president of The Metzner Group, LLC, commented on this aspect of WPM’s culture, "For yet another year, it is difficult to top a company that frequently reviews its company practices and benefits. Impressively, it made improvements based on those assessments. With 335 employees and 54 stock holders, WPM continues to strive to improve in all areas of ‘best firm’ practices. The management effectively implements and communicates changes throughout the company."

A prime example of one of the assessments to which Metzner referred was a comprehensive third-party compensation and benefits survey conducted last year. The results led to mid-year base compensation adjustments for some staff and a new program to benchmark against competitor firms.

Other improvements to the firm’s workplace practices during the past year were birthday cards and movie passes for all staff, change in eligibility for part-time staff from 30 to 20 hours per week, change in eligibility for four weeks of vacation from 15 to 12 years of service, change in the definition of compensation in its 401(k) plan to include bonuses and overtime, and standardization of its Employee Orientation Program.

Improvements on deck for this year are a corporate identity re-branding; creation of an employee wellness program to promote healthy living; improvements to its human resources information system to allow more employee self-service and manager reporting, as well as improved applicant tracking; and many other enhancements.

In the 75 years WPM has been in business, its leaders have learned many truths about running a successful company. One that is obvious in the context of this competition is that, to attract and retain the best staff, a firm cannot focus on one or two areas of its business, but must create a high-caliber firm from every vantage point. Greg Churchman, an interview and retention strategist with his own firm, Churchman Consulting Solutions of Fort Collins, Colo., commented on this characteristic: "WPM is aware that it takes more than salary and benefits to attract and retain employees by investing in training, recognition, and performance management. They have taken the theories of employee retention that many talk about and put them into action."

Second place: PCS Structural Solutions (PCS)—PCS employees’ responses to the Employee Satisfaction Survey were more favorable than other firms in many areas. Specifically, when asked about the trustworthiness and competence of its leadership/management team, involvement in philanthropic and/or community service activities, fairness and consistency in its policies and decisions, quality of work the firm provides clients, and management’s openness and responsiveness to new ideas or suggestions, PCS stood out from most other firms.

In fact, Judge Michael Zmugg, a consultant with Chicago-based ZweigWhite, candidly expressed that "it was a very challenging task this year to rank the second and third place firms, as both were very competitive with unique strengths. It was the responses from PCS’s employees, however, that tipped the scales."

A program called Individual Operating Plans is used by the firm to enhance professional development and to provide opportunities for idea sharing about the company—an aspect of the firm that its employees rated highly in the Employee Satisfaction Survey. This is a semi-annual, goal-setting process for each of the firm’s 47 employees. The plans are written by employees and supervisors. Judge John Geddie, a principal with Albuquerque, N.M.-based Martin-Simonds Associates, Inc., said, "I commend PCS for its efforts to involve its employees in the direction of the firm in a meaningful way. The firm’s use of its ‘Individual Operating Plan’ for setting goals for employees and its focus on employee development deserve recognition."

Also remarkable is the company’s high retention rate, as evidenced by its median employee tenure of 12 years; the median of all competing firms was six years. Geddie said, "The company’s high retention rate in today’s tight labor market indicates its success in keeping employees motivated and engaged."

One long-time employee is PCS President/CEO Daniel D. Putnam, who has been with the firm for 29 years, starting out as an intern. He commented on his management style in a questionnaire for the judging panel: "Knowing when to manage and when to let others blaze their own trail is something I think I have developed a knack for over the years. ‘Over managing’ stifles growth and creativity. ‘Under managing’ can result in significant lack of productivity and unacceptable mistakes. Finding a good balance is a key that I constantly evaluate." This sage advice from a proven leader in the industry is clearly working for PCS.

Third place: Hinman Consulting Engineers (HCE)—A small firm with a niche focus, HCE employees only 17 people who provide antiterrorism consulting engineering and blast engineering to clients from its San Francisco headquarters, as well as branch offices in New York and Arlington, Va.

Geddie recognized the following about the firm, "The philosophy of the president of Hinman Consulting Engineers reflects a commitment to work-life balance and meaningful input of employees in the direction of the firm. The firm appears committed to making Hinman Consulting Engineers a fun place to work."

Some ways a work-life balance are promoted include flex time/flexible working hours for all staff; ability for all staff to work at home; various company-sponsored social events, including entire staff corporate retreats, happy hours, employee and family holiday parties, pot-luck lunches, sunset sailboat cruises, and wine making in Napa Valley; a remarkable maternity benefit that provides employees who have been with the firm three years or more 12 weeks of paid leave at 60 percent salary; and 100 percent paid medical, dental, and vision insurance for employees and their families.

Metzner summarized the firm’s benefits: "An ample benefits program, which includes three weeks vacation for all employees, that is more commonly found in much larger companies."

Its open-book management style is also a strong component of the firm’s culture. President Eve Hinman, Ph.D., said in a questionnaire, "We adopted an open-book policy so that everyone could be aware of how the firm was doing in terms of meeting financial and strategic goals. We find that people feel much more secure and happy when they know what is going on within the firm."

Zmugg was complimentary of many of the firm’s attributes. He said, "Hinman’s compensation and health benefits, employee responses regarding recognition and feedback, and overall employee satisfaction make Hinman Consulting Engineers a great place to work."

Congratulations to the top three firms, who stood out among the rest for creating a stellar workplace. Employee satisfaction is a commitment these firms’ leaders are keeping and striving to improve upon.

The process

Executing the contest for the fourth time in 2006, the process did not change remarkably from last year’s. In 2005, the Employee Satisfaction Survey was initiated to add an unprecedented level of credibility to the competition. Following is a description of the contest process:

Structural Engineer announced the contest and posted the entry form (known as the Corporate Survey) online in January. Completing the first step to enter, contestants responded to the questions on the Corporate Survey and returned it by the deadline in April. Next, following the directions from our staff, the competing firms launched the contest’s required Employee Satisfaction Survey to their staff. Firms were encouraged to achieve a minimum 20 percent response rate to the anonymous survey.

Next, our staff graded the Corporate and Employee Satisfaction Surveys—which make up the two, equally-weighted components of the grading process—for all firms, and determined a raw score for each component. (The method used to determine the raw scores is described in more detail below.) Criteria considered the many aspects of a great firm to work for, including culture, benefits, performance/recognition, compensation, professional development, and recruiting/retention. We used the standard deviation and mean to distribute the firms’ scores for each component, which gave more weight to firms that scored well outside of the average. We used the sum of the distributed scores for both components to rank the firms.

The top three firms made it to the final round, which means that our judging panel independently evaluates and re-ranks these firms. In addition to using the information provided in Corporate and Employee Satisfaction Surveys, the judges learn more about the top finishers through questionnaires completed by the top firms’ presidents and human resource directors. Then they use their best judgment given their expertise in recruiting, retention, and human resource issues to rank the firms in order. We tally the judges’ results to establish the final order of the top three winners.

To determine the raw scores used to rank the contestants, the Corporate Survey and Employee Satisfaction Survey are evaluated objectively in the following manner:

Corporate Survey—Most questions on the Corporate Survey were graded using one of two main methods. The first type compared a firm’s response to the median response of the contestant pool. If a firm met or exceeded the median, then points were awarded. For example, the median voluntary turnover rate for all the firms that entered the contest was 7.6 percent. Therefore, if a firm had a 7.6 percent or lower turnover rate, it earned points; firms with a turnover rate higher than 7.6 percent did not earn any points. For some particularly important questions, bonus points were awarded if a firm met or exceeded the 90th percentile of all firms.

The second method simply awarded points if a benefit was offered or if the affirmative response to a question was given. For example, if a firm offers a flexible medical spending account to staff, it earned points; likewise, if a firm said it has a non-discriminatory culture regarding age, gender, race, and religion, it earned points.
For both grading methods, more important attributes were worth more points; for example, beating the average voluntary turnover rate was worth more points than hosting a company picnic.

Employee Satisfaction Survey—All of the Employee Satisfaction Survey questions were graded (other than demographic questions and a few narrative response questions) using a method that compared, for each question, a firm’s average positive response to the average positive response of the contestant pool (referred to as the "Benchmark"). For example, employees were asked to respond on a scale of one to six—where "one" is the most undesirable response and "six" is the most desirable response—how well their firm provided a team environment. If a firm’s average positive response met or exceeded the Benchmark, it earned a point for the question. Additionally, bonus points were awarded for firms that met or exceeded the 90th percentile on specific questions that are the most telling or important of all of those asked in the Employee Satisfaction Survey. Incredibly, feedback from 1,991 structural engineering firm employees was included in this process!

Questions were arranged by categories, including culture, benefits, performance/recognition, compensation, professional development, recruiting and retention, and general. For each firm, the total points earned for each category were normalized so that each category had a total of 10 points. This step helped to account for the fact that there were many more graded questions in some categories than others and that some categories’ questions weren’t necessarily as important as others with fewer questions. Next, a unique weighting factor was applied to each category’s normalized point total. The weighting factors are based on data collected from the 2004 Employee Satisfaction Survey conducted for the Best Civil Engineering Firm To Work For Contest. We asked many questions about what was important to the employees of civil engineering firms so that we could determine how to evaluate the responses in future contests based on data, rather than on assumptions. More than 12,000 employees’ responses were incorporated into these findings. For example, data revealed that employees believe a firm’s culture is more important than its professional development programs. Finally, the sum of the weighted total points for each category was determined; this was the total raw score for the Employee Satisfaction Survey component of the overall score.

Conclusion

If you ask 10 people the question, "What do you feel is the most important attribute that a company must have to be considered one of the best firms to work for?" you’ll probably get a variety of answers. In fact, I took a sample of 100 employee satisfaction survey responses to this open-response question and came up with more than 20 different characteristics, including the following: a good balance between work and home life, integrity, professionalism, challenging work, career development, comfortable work environment, technical expertise, fairness and consistency in treatment of all employees, camaraderie, training, professional development, respect of individuals, leadership, a caring atmosphere, open communication, good benefits and compensation, and team work.

While the "best firms to work for" is a highly subjective label, depending upon an individual’s professional goals, personality, experiences, skills, position, age, and more, we believe it is worthwhile for firms to compete for such recognition. First and foremost, this competition forces firms to take a look at their practices, programs, benefits, work environment, and other features in a new light. The outcome often fuels enhancements, even for those firms that are already achieving high employee satisfaction. Additionally, in this highly competitive job market—in which quality staff is hard to come by—employers can tout their accomplishments in their recruiting and retention efforts. And, structural engineer jobseekers have a reliable resource to compare firms.

We wish to thank the 34 firms that competed this year. Whether your firm placed in the top 15 or honorable mention list or not, it should be commended for considering the quality of your workplace practices and your employees’ satisfaction. For those firms that placed in the contest, we celebrate your success! For those firms that didn’t compete, but have reviewed this article and are considering improvements to emulate these notable firms, you’re taking a step in the right direction—and we hope to receive your entry next year!

Sidebar: Judging Panel

Greg Churchman: Interview & Retention Strategist with Churchman Consulting Solutions, Inc., of Fort Collins, Colo.

John Geddie: Principal with Martin-Simonds Associates, Inc., based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Carol A. Metzner: President of The Metzner Group, LLC, headquartered in Myersville, Md.

Michael Zmugg: Consultant with ZweigWhite, headquartered in Chicago

The Top 15 Best Structural Engineering Firms To Work For

2006 Rank, Company name, Number of employees*
Website ·  Year established · Headquarters (Number of branch offices)

1. Walter P Moore, 335 employees
www.walterpmoore.com * 1931 * Houston (8)
Walter P Moore seeks to improve its workplace continuously, a hallmark of a great place to work. It also invests in the future of engineering: giving scholarships to various universities and encouraging staff to be adjunct professors.

2. PCS Structural Solutions, 47 employees
www.pcs-structural.com * 1965 * Tacoma, Wash. (1)
PCS Structural Solutions made above average investments in information technology in 2005. Additionally, it touts a remarkable median employee tenure of 12 years; the median of contestant firms was 6 years.

3. Hinman Consulting Engineers, Inc., 17 employees
www.hce.com * 1997 * San Francisco (2)
As a firm providing a niche service, Hinman Consulting Engineers recognizes the value of employee referrals to find new potential staffers. The firm pays existing employees $10,000 if a referred project manager is hired and stays employed for a probation period.

4. Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Inc., 139 employees
www.mka.com * 1970 * Seattle (1)
MKA reports that 100 percent of its senior staff has been promoted from within the firm, exemplifying one of its recruiting strategies: extensive opportunities for advancement. Those senior managers motivate employees by actively engaging in day-to-day tasks, fostering a "positively competitive environment," and being open to alternative ideas.

5. Wallace Engineering – Structural Consultants, Inc., 140 employees
www.wallacesc.com * 1981 * Tulsa, Okla. (3)
Wallace Engineering – Structural Consultants, Inc., practices open book management, allowing employees to understand the inner workings of the firm and what makes it tick.

6. Timothy Haahs & Associates, Inc., 40 employees
www.timhaahs.com * 1994 * Blue Bell, Pa. (1)
TimHaahs provides a "transparent, open work environment" including open spaces, natural light, and glass partitions to foster transparency and communication among staff. Daycare is provided in the building at a reasonable cost to the employee.

7. Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., 271 employees
www.sgh.com * 1956 * Waltham, Mass. (4)
All staff, in all offices of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., have the opportunity to participate in regular "Staff Communication Lunches" with this firm’s CEO, who leads a discussion on a topic suggested by employees. Results are used to improve firm-wide employment practices.

8. OBEC Consulting Engineers, 92 employees 
www.obec.com * 1966 * Eugene, Ore. (2)
All OBEC employees are offered tuition reimbursement for approved classes. The firm pays 100 percent of tuition for a C grade or better; reimburses employees for textbooks, fees, and travel expenses; and provides time off with pay to meet course obligations.

9. Steven Schaefer Associates Inc., 49 employees
www.ssastructural.com * 1976 * Cincinnati (0)
Employees and their families receive 100 percent paid medial insurance at Steven Schaefer Associates Inc. Other notable benefits include paid professional registration, season NFL tickets for staff members to take clients, and subsidized home computer purchases.

10. KL&A, Inc., 38 employees
www.klaa.com * 1994 * Golden, Colo. (3)
Even part-time employees at KL&A, Inc., are eligible for 401(k) benefits and bonuses. The firm has a wellness program, pays all non-executive employees for overtime, and counts 44 percent of staff as shareholders.

11. Beaudette Consulting Engineers, Inc., 29 employees
www.bceweb.com * 1990 * Missoula, Mont. (2)
This firm rewards employees who do an exceptional job with lunch or dinner for the employee and his or her spouse/family or with a spot bonus from upper management. A typical amount of the spot bonus is $1,500.

12. Pruitt Eberly Stone, Inc., 48 employees
www.pesengineers.com * 1988 * Atlanta (0)
Pruitt Eberly Stone’s employees will be showing off its sense of fun this month when it hosts employees’ children for trick-or-treating. Another recent "dress up" event was a two-day putt-putt tournament through the hallways—staff wore their favorite golf attire.

13. KingGuinn Associates, P.A., 10 employees
www.kingguinn.com * 1967 * Charlotte, N.C. (0)
Exceptional practices at KingGuinn Associates, P.A., include firm donation of design services to non-profits and churches, the ability of staff to use company resources for volunteer work, and the firm’s charitable donations.

14. DCI Engineers, 135 employees
www.dci-engineers.com * 1988 * Bellevue, Wash. (4)
Proud of its family atmosphere, DCI Engineers enables employees to gift sick time to another employee in need, offers flex time or flexible working hours to all staff, hosts an annual family picnic, and throws baby and wedding showers for staff.

15. Halvorson and Partners, P.C., 31 employees
www.halvorsonandpartners.com * 1996 * Chicago (1)
Employees at Halvorson and Partners, P.C., enjoyed above average increases in pay last year; 100-percent paid medical, dental, vision, life, long-term disability, and long-term care insurance premiums; and zero percent voluntary turnover in 2005.

*Represents full-time staff as of April 2006

Honorable Mentions

Company name (listed in alphabetical order), Number of employees, Headquarters (Number of branch offices), Website

Bliss & Nyitray, Inc., 45 employees, Miami (3) www.bniengineers.com
Collins Engineers, Inc., 97 employees, Chicago (9) www.collinsengr.com
DASSE Design Inc., 61 employees, San Francisco (1) www.dasse.com
Datum Engineers, Inc., 49 employees, Dallas (1) www.datumengineers.com
Ehlert/Bryan, Inc., 33 employees, McLean, Va. (1) www.ehlert-bryan.com
John A. Martin & Associates of Nevada, Inc., 46 employees, Las Vegas (0) www.jamanv.com
Lionakis Beaumont Design Group, 190 employees, Sacramento, Calif. (1) www.lbdg.com
Rutherford & Chekene, a California Corporation, 72 employees, San Francisco (1) www.ruthchek.com
Uzun & Case Engineers, LLC, 52 employees, Atlanta (0) www.uzuncase.com
Walker Parking Consultants/Engineers, Inc., 292 employees, Elgin, Ill. (12) www.walkerparking.com

*Represents full-time staff as of May 2006

Sidebar: Looking forward to 2007!

If your firm didn’t enter this year, or if you didn’t make the list, you are encouraged to enter next year! To be sure you don’t miss out on the 2007 entry information, sign up today for our Contest Contact List. Go to the Best Firm To Work For Portal at http://hotfirm.com/our-awards/best-firms-to-work-for/ and click on the link "Click here to register on the Best Firms To Work For Contest Contact List." Also, you can find a copy of the 2006 contest entry documents if you want to get an understanding of what is required to enter. We will make adjustments to the 2006 Corporate Survey, but reviewing the instructions and types of questions asked will help you get a feel for the competition. Expect the updates entry forms to be posted in January 2007.

One important note to newcomers: Rest assured that regardless of your ranking status, our staff will not disclose your score, nor will we release the names of firms that entered the contest but did not make the top 15 or honorable mention lists. 

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