Focus on recruiting in 2020

Jan 13, 2020

“For those of you running A/E firms – if I were you, I’d focus on recruiting in 2020.”

For those of you running architecture, engineering, and environmental consulting firms – if I were you, I’d focus on recruiting in 2020.

We are absolutely in the midst of a battle – a battle to hire the people we need to do the work our clients are asking us to do. And the people shortage that was predicted for years is well underway.

But let’s be honest, we can’t use just anyone. Besides technical and/or design competence, we desperately need people who have good communication skills – people who can write reports, give instructions, develop proposals, make presentations, communicate through email, and more. And we need people who work well with others. Little we do as companies is a one-person effort. Egos have to be kept in check. Emotional intelligence is crucial.

So, how best to find and actually hire these outstanding people who will succeed in whatever roles we need them in? Here are my thoughts on how A/E firms can make it happen:

  • Have a budget for recruiting. Stop thinking you are going to be able to make serious inroads to solving what your top management keeps saying is their biggest single problem without committing any financial resources to solving it. Look at what businesses in other industries spend on recruiting and then look at A/E firms. We spend a fraction of what is needed to actually solve this problem. We have to have a budget and it has to be realistic. And yes, you CAN afford it. We see the profitability’s day return on equity of firms in the A/E business today and it’s high. Spend what has to be spent.
  • Assign one person to manage the process firm-wide. This is one of the keys to an effective hiring effort. You need one person driving the process – someone who is super-responsive, and someone who can really sell. Having ONE person manage the process ensures all of the steps are taken and that legal compliance is maintained. A consistent process is also more likely to yield consistent results. And this person needs to review all offers and offer letters. I cannot overemphasize, however, that you don’t want a bureaucrat in this job. You need someone with a zeal for recruiting. It has to be someone who “gets it” and who helps the individual managers with needs get those jobs filled.
  • Create a candidate database and use it! If you would simply gather up every resume and application that has come into your firm in one place and make sure all future resumes go there as well, my experience is that you will probably be able to fill about half of your jobs quickly with candidates from that database going forward. That is a big claim, but believe me, this database is essential. As we used to like to say, “There’s gold in them thar files!”
  • Use your employees as recruiters! Your best people know other good people. They went to school together or worked at other companies together or worked on projects across different firms together. Enlist their support! Ask them for help. Probe. Go see them to have these conversations – don’t just send out an email to staff. Some firms pay recruitment bonuses to staff. I hate to do that for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I have seen good employees demotivated when they refer someone for a job who doesn’t get hired.
  • Determine who your primary competitors are and look there. This is so essential. Firms that you compete with have qualified people doing the jobs you need to fill. Stop acting like there is something wrong with going after them. If you were a college football team who needed a new coach, would you look to the worst teams not in your league to find one? Of course not!
  • Go after the people you are interested in versus waiting for them to call you. You have to make the first move. It’s not hard to identify these people in your competitors. Most companies have them listed right on their websites today. Call them. Ask them to lunch or coffee. Tell them about the good things happening in your firm. Sell them on the idea they may be better off working in your company than where they are at present. Remember that recruiting is selling! It takes someone who is enthusiastic and energetic. And when you do finally get one of these people to the table, make sure the rest of the people in your firm who will meet with them understand that YOU recruited them. All it takes is one person to ask, “Why are you looking to make a change?” to turn off a good candidate. And believe me, this happens frequently!
  • Make good employment offers. Of course this means you first need to know what people are currently earning. Ask! Get the details. When someone says, “I make $110K,” you need to know how much of that is base salary, what portion is overtime, how much is bonus, and what other special benefits they may be counting. You will find often that that $110K is really $90K, which can greatly impact your idea of affordability. And one more thing – what your people make right now is not the question! You may have to pay more. That is another problem, but the reality of the situation.
  • Don’t give people too long to make a decision on your offer, and don’t agree to far-out start dates. The more time you give someone, the greater the odds are that they will turn you down. You are giving them time to shop your offer and think of all the reasons not to take it. Same thing with delayed start dates. You are giving their current employers time to work on them and put them on a guilt trip about leaving. Odds are they will renege on their offer acceptance and you will really be behind schedule filling the job then because you waited for them.
  • Consider a long-term contract with a specialized recruiting firm. It may be necessary to get outside help from a firm that can bring some recruiting manpower to bear on your problem. If you do go this route, hire a specialized firm – one with experience in the AEC business specifically. And give them a full year contract. It takes time to learn how to work together and time to fill the pipeline with job candidates. One more point – do not expect a competent firm to work on a purely contingent fee basis. They don’t need to. Contingency fee firms are not the same caliber of those that do not work on that basis!
  • Have a real onboarding program so the new employee doesn’t suffer from “cognitive dissonance.” I always say I never took a new job I didn’t hate at first. That isn’t right. But when companies aren’t ready for you, don’t have an office set up, don’t have business cards, can’t get you an email address or computer set up, and don’t give you opportunities to really get acquainted with the other people there – how can you feel good about a new job? A real onboarding program is essential to making people feel good about making a job change.

I could go on but have already used too much space. We’ll pick it up again in these pages soon!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

Click here to learn about Elevate Your Recruiting and Retention Strategy, Zweig Group's workshop that addresses the industry's No. 1 challenge – recruiting and retention.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.