Bridging the Workforce Gap Like so many sectors during the Great Recession, the engineering industry was particularly hard hit. Unfortunately, the fallout continues to resonate within the profession even post-recovery. In the depths of the recession, the newest engineers were the first to be let go as firms struggled to reduce overhead. Faced with the then bleak prospects of the consulting engineering job market, these rookies left the profession altogether, as did many of the students who had the unfortunate timing of graduating during those years. Now, with Georgia’s economy growing again, firms have been clamoring to hire engineers with five to 10 years of experience, but there aren’t nearly enough of them to go around. To compound the challenge, firms that are addressing their need for new engineers by hiring graduates fresh out of school are finding it difficult to on-board these young recruits – primarily due to the lack of mentors from the coveted five to 10 years of experience cohort. Where did the “lost generation” of engineers go and what can our industry do about it? FINDING SOLUTIONS TO THE WORKFORCE GAP CHALLENGE Katy Young of ExactSource has a few thoughts on the subject. Aft er all – as Chief Operating Officer for one of the leading talent solutions, recruiting, and market research companies in the nation providing services to firms in the architectural and engineering spheres – she is well equipped to weigh in. ExactSource has not only completed searches for top-notch talent in over 40 states and five countries outside of the United States, it lays claim to nearly 50 clients on the ENR500 list. “We first took notice a couple of years ago when more and more engineering firms became increasingly comfortable filling their benches with talent again,” recalled Young. “Many of our clients wanted engineers with seven to 10 years of experience. Unfortunately, when the recession hit, entry-level engineers and recent graduates were the most affected. In 2008, there was already a shortage of talent to begin with in this sector. It was definitely a last-in, first-out environment. Because many firms didn’t have as much use for entry-level engineers who didn’t have the experience or credentials, some engineering students began changing their majors and recent graduates chose to apply their degrees to different industries. Many engineers left the industry entirely and chose to apply their experience outside of consulting services. Essentially, this lasted up until 2012, but we are still seeing some significant effects in the marketplace from it.” Although Young believes the tide is turning in certain disciplines and marketplaces, many of her clients are still feeling the aftershocks of a shallow talent pool for the experience level they desire most. To land one of those hidden gems who managed to avoid falling into the workforce gap, Young suggests firm’s should consider creating a workplace culture and environment that will be more appealing than other competing firms. “Th e A/E/C world is somewhat different from other industries in the competitive sense. There’s significant teaming in this industry – so intentionally recruiting talent from another firm can impact a firm’s ability to partner in the future.” She also warns that traditional hiring practices don’t really work anymore. Even though seven of the Top 10 Paying Degrees are engineering degrees (Georgetown 2014), Young believes it’s not necessarily about the money. Particularly for younger employees, who are oft en just as interested in the non-salary components of thier employment package, including benefits, perks, work/life balance and time off. “In order to position your company to be most attractive to the best candidates out there, the first step is to take an objective look at your corporate culture,” advised Young. “Th is industry, like all others, is changing and transforming rapidly. Look through the eyes of a potential candidate – does your corporate culture reflect the values and essence of your firm? Does it resonate with millennials – the largest generation since the baby boomers? If not, it may be time to acclimate and accommodate. But don’t try to manufacture it; be authentic and transparent about what you are as a company. Many millennials are looking for progressive employment brands with which they can align. Once hired, entry-level talent is oft en eager to learn and eager to please. Consider organically growing that talent through training and certifications. Groom them to mitigate those who have been lost. Open them up to professional associations and networking. Mentoring and continuing education can have great impact for the long-term. It’s important to find the right people within your company to mentor this next generation of engineers, who may have the knowledge, but not necessarily the experience or business sense... yet.” Young indicated that there are some benefits to hiring from the pool of fresh-faced talent and sticking with those who survived the recession, rather than seeking the holy grail of seasoned engineers with seven to 10 years of experience. As the industry becomes increasingly fast-paced with a larger focus on technology and more sophisticated ways of doing business, it’s wise to build your team with those who have been trained or were present for the learning curve – rather than try to beckon back those who may have left the industry. “Engineering is an industry that is typically well compensated and has very low unemployment,” said Young. “If this lost generation hasn’t returned by now, it’s a pretty safe bet that they aren’t coming back.” SMALL FIRM PERSPECTIVE: Keck & Wood, Inc. Founded in 1954, this employee-owned firm provides engineering consulting services for environmental facilities, water systems, stormwater systems, transportation facilities and natural gas systems, as well as municipal planning, landscape architecture and surveying to clients throughout the Southeast. Locations: Headquarters in Duluth, Ga. with a regional office in Rock Hill, S.C. Number of Employees: 35 Eddie Williams – President & CEO of Keck & Wood, Inc. – recalls that many engineering firms were slow to realize what was going on when the Great Recession first hit. As work volumes began to dwindle to nearly nothing, many companies all across the country quit recruiting and reduced their staff. Suddenly graduates couldn’t find work, and the longer their search lasted, the more they lost their proficiencies. Many turned to other industries where they could find work, such as banking or manufacturing. “We were fortunate in that we were not as hard-hit,” said Williams. “Our clients are more in the public sector – like local and state governments. They were not as quick to curtail work. Eventually, even they ran out of money and had to put a hold on important projects. We did have some attrition and a small reduction in force. Now that companies are hiring again, it’s challenging to compare that lost generation against new graduates who are more proficient and more in touch with what they’ve just learned.” In order to attract the best talent regardless of their experience level, Keck & Wood tries to make its corporate culture more attractive to those engineers it hopes to hire. The company is in the midst of revamping its website, having a more active presence on social media – particularly LinkedIn, maintaining a presence at college recruiting fairs and encouraging its employees to find fresh talent through an employee recruiting incentive program. To retain the talent already on its roster, Keck & Wood remains competitive with its salaries, fosters a positive office environment, provides opportunities for social interactions, maintains transparency and emphasizes teamwork. Because Keck & Wood is an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) company, all staff members are imbued with a sense of ownership. As for advice to other firms with regard to attracting and retaining talent, Williams suggested, “Pay attention to your staff, stay in touch with your clients so you know what’s coming and get everyone involved in the recruiting process.” MIDSIZED FIRM PERSPECTIVE: Wolverton & Associates, Inc. Launched in 1989, Wolverton & Associates is licensed to provide site development, transportation engineering, traffic engineering, industrial and business services, land surveying and subsurface utility engineering to its clients in 33 states. Locations: Headquarters in Duluth, Ga. with satellite offices in Savannah, Ga. and Nashville, Tenn. Number of Employees: 88 In many ways, Human Resources professional, Ashley Wolverton, agrees with Williams. When the Recession hit, there was a perfect storm of displaced employees who left the engineering industry altogether and college students who could see the impact on their intended industry and elected to change course. For those who survived, many felt an affinity to their employer – which flies in the face of their transitory millennial counterparts. “We definitely felt it at Wolverton & Associates,” recalled Wolverton. “It hit every department under that civil umbrella. Our public and private funding, along with a diverse portfolio, helped us survive – for which we are truly thankful.” In reaction, the company launched an innovative initiative, tied to its strategic plan in order to aid the company in being more self-sufficient as opposed to riding the waves and cycles of its client activity. This cultural transformation was deemed Wolverton 2.0 and was linked to all of the company’s growth goals, including culture, organic growth, acquisition growth and diversification. “We first placed a large emphasis on existing staff,” said Wolverton. “We challenged our people to be more than engineers. We encourage them to bring more soft skills into the workplace. We began by finding out what was working and what wasn’t through a cultural survey. We also created task forces around the findings from that survey who would take part in discussions and make suggestions for solutions. We then took it to a granular level with an engagement survey that addressed things like relationship with their manager and compensation and benefits. We also give a DISC personality assessment to current staff and new recruits to learn things like how they show up in the workplace, how they communicate, what makes them tick, how they learn and what is going to make them successful.” As for prospective employees, they must all undergo a behavioral-based interview process to assess strategic and critical thinking skills, as well as past successes. Once hired, they are given “score cards” specific to their job description, which are tied to actionable, measurable company goals so there’s no confusion as to what is expected of them. “We’ve really woven 2.0 into our company culture,” explained Wolverton. “We basically had to refocus our lens after 25 years in the industry. It’s an entirely different way of looking at every decision – from the people we hire to the way we operate. It’s not for everyone, and we initially saw some turn-over as people opted out during our initial rollout of this ‘work-in-progress.’ It took a lot of commitment from the executive team to ride it out to ensure that we had the right people on board. That process has made us better. We are wholly committed to continuing 2.0 through ‘all hands on deck’ meetings, incorporation of an open door policy through CEO office hours and more. 2.0 and this two-way communication system has given employees a sense of ownership and opportunity.” With regard to advice to other firms that wish to attract and retain talent, Wolverton added, “The talent crisis isn’t going away. The more you focus on your people now, the more it will benefit you in the future. Invest in them. The more you do, the more they’ll give back to the firm.” LARGE FIRM PERSPECTIVE: Kimley-Horn Established in 1967, Kimley-Horn earns its place as one of the nation's leading land planning and design consulting firms by providing a wide- range of services to a wide variety of public and private clients all over the country. In 2015, Kimley-Horn jumped an astounding 48 spots to #25 on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For - representing the company's eighth time on the list. Locations: Headquarters in Cary, N.C. with 69 additional offices throughout the U.S., including Midtown Atlanta, Alpharetta and Peachtree Corners, Ga. Number of Employees: 2,300 - including over 150 in Georgia “It was the worst economy I had seen and ever hope to see in my career,” recalled Barry Barber, Director of Human Resources at Kimley-Horn. “Firms either weren’t hiring or hired at a much slower rate than historical pace. People went to where the jobs were and unfortunately, many were outside of the consulting engineering industry. And those who did join our industry went into practices that were disproportionately focused on serving public sector clients who were more insulated from the recession. We were fortunate. While our hiring certainly slowed down during the recession, we continued to make strategic hires.” Moreover, Barber stated that as things turned around, Kimley-Horn’s more recent grads were able to reach out to their friends to let them know about job opportunities within the company. Kimley-Horn was – and remains – very intentional about hiring the best graduates from the best programs across the country. For the third year in a row, the firm has hired more than 200 graduates and more than 100 interns. “These new grads are bright and ambitious and have been given the opportunity to grow quickly to bridge the gap,” Barber said. “Our philosophy is that if we don’t hire new graduates this (and every) year, five years from now we’ll be looking for people with five years of experience. While we do all of the typical recruiting outreach efforts, our recruiting is based primarily on relationships. Most experienced hires join us because they know someone at our firm.” Kimley-Horn is able to maintain a large pool of talent through an unusual combination of alluring workplace culture and exciting, high-profile project opportunities. Listed among the many projects in the company’s portfolio are new stadiums for the Atlanta Braves and Falcons, Porsche Corporate Headquarters and Test Track, the Atlanta BeltLine Westside Trail and College Football Hall of Fame – just to name a few right here in Georgia. Additional factors that make the company appealing to job-seekers and current staff include: • The fact that it is a national firm that serves a balance of both public and private clients and is continually ranked as a best place to work. • Provision of a well-functioning ownership transition plan that provides stability – Kimley-Horn will not be sold to a third-party. Instead, employees are afforded opportunities to become owners based on performance, which has become a reality for 16 percent of its staff. The company also provides incentive compensation that rewards performance. • On-going training through well-established and effective programs. • Culture that is based on team success over personal success. • Emphasis on many “common sense” business practices that may be surprisingly hard to find in other organizations. “We talk a lot about providing the environment for our people to flourish,” explained Barber. “And we think of flourishing from a holistic perspective – professionally, personally, financially. We do a pretty good job of this and it results in staff retention rates that compare very favorably to our industry. We also do a lot of self-assessment to be sure that our actions are consistent with our words. It’s one thing to say we are a great place to work; it’s another thing to actually be a great place to work – year in and year out. Th e past few years have been particularly good years for our firm and that translates to more opportunities and rewards for our staff .” Earlier this year, Kimley-Horn rolled out an initiative called LIFT (Lasting Impact for Tomorrow), which is focused on improving its retention of women professionals. LIFT includes elements of training, mentoring, scheduling flexibility and support for new mothers. Barber suggested that other firms that wish to grow and retain their teams might want to “paint an attractive long-term picture – one that provides the opportunity for professional growth, financial security and a positive environment. And then live up to your promises. Recruits and staff can quickly tell if your words and actions don’t line up.” TENACITY PAYS OFF When Aaron Humphrey graduated from Georgia Southern University with a degree in civil engineering technology in December 2011, he had no idea of the challenges he would face once he started pounding the pavement. Although the Great Recession had been declared over, the economic malaise to follow was felt keenly thanks to high unemployment rates. After months of little to no interest from prospective employers, he took a job with the retail chain – Michaels Stores, Inc. – in order to stay busy and bring in some revenue. He figured the move would help buy him some time until he got his foot in the door with a local engineering firm to finally launch the career he’d worked so hard to achieve. Humphrey never gave up. Each night, he would come home from work and search for available positions online. He also took an online AUTO CAD course. In 2012, he sent his resume to Keck & Wood; President & CEO, Eddie Williams did not have a position for him at the time, but he kept his resume on file. “I held onto Aaron’s resume because he’d done a good job of keeping it simple and concise,” recalled Williams. “I also liked the fact that he had his EIT certification, along with a background with the Boy Scouts and a number of extracurricular and volunteer activities. It demonstrated that he was active and community-focused. That made a good impression on me. Before Aaron, I didn’t even realize that Georgia Southern had an engineering program. I called him in for an interview nearly one year later in May 2013.” Humphrey won his spot on the staff of Keck & Wood, Inc. where he now serves as Project Engineer. “I really enjoy my work,” said Humphrey. “I feel very blessed.” ENGINEERING EDUCATION: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS The Georgia Institute of Technology is consistently ranked in the Top 10 engineering programs in the nation. Georgia Southern University added an undergraduate degree in Manufacturing Engineering in August 2015 to its Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering degree and certificate programs. Kennesaw State University, which enrolls approximately 2,000 engineering majors and 1,700 engineering technology majors, is the second-largest engineering college in Georgia with 16 undergraduate degrees and four graduate degrees. Mercer University’s engineering school has roughly 700 students enrolled in its eight undergraduate specialties and eleven graduate specialties. The University of Georgia’s College of Engineering has nearly 1,700 students enrolled and offers eight undergraduate degrees and seven graduate degrees.
Published by American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia. View All Articles.
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