From the Zweig Group roundtable

Apr 07, 2024

Luke Carothers

AEC industry experts shed light on key topics for firm leaders, from employee compensation, career growth, and AI integration.

Zweig Group recently held a roundtable discussion where our service area experts met to discuss client questions and the overall AEC landscape today. This year, the AEC industry anticipates significant transformations, leading the assembled team to discuss topics around facilitating and organizing growth, recruitment and retention, and employee engagement amongst many others.

Hottest topic: Employee compensation. According to Zweig Group’s consultants, firms can’t afford to be caught off guard when it comes to compensation. They need to be on target to stay competitive. Here are some top compensation concerns this year:

  • Decision makers assessing compensation for new hires versus tenured staff. There’s a highly competitive marketplace out there, so how are companies meeting new hire expectations? One of the problems that leadership is seeing is that new hires are expecting compensation that’s equal to tenured staff who have, say, 10 years’ experience.
  • Compensation debt. How far behind or ahead are companies in resetting their whole staff’s compensation from entry-level up? Firms must be prepared to reset people in larger ways than expected, while still maintaining positive retention numbers. Keeping talent is the main priority.
  • Locked into fee structures. Some firms find they’re locked into a fee structure with their client for years (e.g. hourly versus flat). How can that be changed? Can they build into a contract opportunity to escalate the fee? And, is there a way to integrate fee and billing into compensation?
  • Compensation comparisons. Not all companies are created equal. For example, high profit firms are able to drive high fees. Some companies are switching to different compensation philosophies, but how do you compare to those who share the same philosophy? As the old saying goes: You can’t compare apples to oranges.
  • Bonus structure. Many firms have questions around proper bonusing structures for staff, not owners. What are top firms doing? Employee sentiment is greater than average in amount of bonus, frequency of bonuses, and compensation for extraordinary effort. Many firms are moving away from Christmas and biannual bonuses and looking toward performance bonuses instead.
  • Fixing the middle. Firm leaders who want to hire people with 10 years of experience are having difficulty finding them. When they do, they want to offer them better compensation which creates an incentive to move. Leadership want a better philosophy around the middle of the organizational chart because the younger set knows the quickest way to get better compensation is to job hop. How does management “fix the middle”?
  • Cost of living. Many salaries don’t provide enough income for cost of living in their areas. There are larger market factors at play that firms have to contend with and they can’t battle an external market.
  • Culture and compensation. Firm leaders talk about hard dollars, but not about the benefits that staff find perhaps more valuable (e.g., unlimited PTO). Look at the benefits side of the equation – retirement contributions, healthcare, office lunches, pets in the office, and more. What does retention/recruitment look like for firms that invest more in core benefits (retirement, healthcare) versus lunch in office or pets in office. Core benefits are a key driver in keeping people around. What are the correlations between what is making employees happier with policies and benefits?

Career and company growth top of mind. Career and company growth was another big discussion topic. Here were some questions and concerns:

  • Building the pipeline. How are companies moving people through organizations? How are they building infrastructure/pipeline to facilitate growth? For example, how long does it take the average employee to move from starting their position to their first promotion?
  • Thinking outside the box. AEC firms are making some out-of-the-box mergers and acquisitions. For instance, one client added a graphic design firm to their business and another acquired a marketing firm. Why? They can win more work with larger companies because they have more services – one point of contact.
  • What about AI? How can AI support functions such as HR and IT? What are companies doing in this arena?
  • Beyond 12-month forecasting. Many companies are having difficulty forecasting beyond one year. How can this be changed? What tools can they use to break out of this one-year cycle? What data is needed?

So where do we begin? These topics are heavy, and many don’t necessarily have clear answers or solutions. Our recommendation to any firm looking to tackle some of these, is to prioritize an overall strategic plan. Once the firm has developed this, most solutions will fall into place. Our Zweig Group consultants and subject matter experts are here to help in case you need further guidance and assistance.

Start with the data. To inform a strategic plan, you must start with the data. Our strategic planning process captures quantitative and qualitative data. Firms should also leverage benchmarking data to see how they compare to other firms in the industry. Zweig Group has a robust research library that offers valuable benchmarking tools and resources to help you answer these questions and more. Here are some that will give you a jump start:

  • The 2024 Salary Report and Compensation Data and Platform gives companies access to the Comp Data Platform on Zweig Insights, which offers the latest real-time AEC data on one simple to use platform, including typical work location (home vs. office vs. field), bonus data based on job title, total compensation figures, and more.
  • The 2023 Firms of the Future Bundle helps firm leaders to elevate their decision-making process and steer their firm toward a future of growth. It provides in-depth comparisons, strategic insights, and future planning. 

Luke Carothers is Zweig Group’s senior content manager and editor for Civil+Structural Engineer Magazine. His writing focuses primarily on the projects, people, and processes that influence the past, present, and future of the built environment. He welcomes those interested in collaborating on an article to reach out to him at

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.