When it comes to competing for clients and contracts, most A/E firms have a good sense of their relative competitive assets—and their liabilities. But what about in the competition for talent? Do you know how your firm stands relative to competitors in this critical area? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
Firms are hiring again as the economy continues its slow recovery. And I'm starting to hear the old refrain again, "We're having trouble finding good people." While there's some debate about it, demographic trends suggest a worsening shortage of technical professionals in the years ahead. So as growth returns and more boomers exit the workforce, your firm's ability to compete for talent grows in importance.
So what assets are particularly crucial for success in recruiting top talent?
A recruiting culture. There are two essential pipelines for supplying sustained company growth and prosperity: (1) new clients and (2) new employees (and, of course, retaining a good share of both). In both cases, A/E firms traditionally have relied on only a handful of people to identify promising candidates and sell them on the advantages of working with their firm. In recruiting, HR typically casts the net for prospects, while hiring managers make the sale.
Just as I previously recommended creating a "rainmaking culture" where there is broad employee participation in the business development effort, I advocate engaging your staff in recruiting. Yes, most firms offer referral bonuses to encourage this, but most haven't come anywhere near taking full advantage of their employees' collective recruiting potential. It works best when a shared responsibility for attracting new talent permeates your firm's culture. That enables you to leverage the combined relationships and connections of your staff.
Your website. In all likelihood, most visitors to your website are looking for job opportunities. Is your site optimally designed to support your recruiting efforts? Obviously, you want to make it easy for candidates to review job postings and submit their application. You should also have information about employee benefits and advantages. The average A/E firm covers these basic requirements.
But where most firms miss the boat is giving the candidate a glimpse of the soul of their firm—its culture, work environment, values. The typical A/E firm website is a rather sterile presentation of basic information, revealing little about what it's like to work there (or to work with the firm as a client). A strong recruiting website should convey a sense of your firm's personality, making people a large part of the narrative.
Meaningful work. Of course, our work is extremely valuable. But as I've written before in this space, technical professionals often fail to connect what we do to the associated human benefits. We're sometimes more inclined to talk about the technical features of our projects than how people are helped by them.
Increasingly, employees are looking for a greater purpose in their work than simply earning a living or completing projects. They want to make a substantial contribution to society, to have a lasting impact. This is especially true of the younger generation. Can you describe what your firm does in those terms? Let me suggest making the larger benefits of your work more prominent in your recruiting and marketing materials and discussions with candidates.
Clear opportunities for growth. Another important factor in recruiting, particularly among younger workers, is your firm's ability to provide opportunities for advancement and learning. One way candidates might assess this is to look at your current managers. Are they predominantly older men? I've worked with several firms where this was the case. That might suggest that tenure trumps talent when it comes to advancement, or that women don't have equal opportunities. If your firm's current structure sends the wrong message, be sure you can counter that with clear descriptions of career paths and opportunities for promotion.
When it comes to learning, it's far more attractive to candidates to be able to show a general curriculum for professional development at various stages of their career than to simply say you provide training. Better still is to incorporate on-the-job training and coaching, where skills are best learned. Professional development is an area where most A/E firms come up short, which provides an opening for your firm to differentiate itself.
Your firm's reputation. Your firm's reputation in the marketplace can be a huge recruiting asset, or liability. The question is: What are you doing to build your reputation? Much has been written in this space about marketing, which substantially contributes to your firm's reputation. Marketing activities such as speaking and publishing obviously make you both more visible and desirable to prospective employees. These days, your web presence plays a big role in shaping your reputation.
I mentioned the search for purpose through one's work earlier; it can also be an important part of your firm's reputation. Studies show that candidates are increasingly considering the employer's role in supporting their community, in emphasizing social responsibility as a key business goal. How does your firm stack up in being a good corporate citizen? Some firms have effectively promoted the contributions of their employees in this area, which can help your recruiting efforts as well.
You probably noticed that these recruiting assets don't come easily. They are things of substance that go beyond the usual advertising and promotion. But isn't that the nature of any real competitive advantage? If nothing else, hopefully this post will inspire you to at least make a detailed assessment of how your firm compares in the competition for talent.