How to land a purple unicorn

Jan 02, 2022

Firms that actively work to attract these rare creatures will be best positioned to grow and prosper.

This is a term we use to define the rarest of creatures – a water/wastewater engineer with 10-15 years of experience with just the right blend of technical expertise, business acumen, and people skills. You may need to change out the role for your business or industry, but the experience level is the same.

The lack of qualified candidates in this age range is real and will likely get worse due to our industry’s failure to attract STEM candidates. As measured by the American Society for Engineering Education, in 2010 civil engineering degree graduates ranked number two for all engineering disciplines for a total of 12,154 out of 83,001, and by 2020 civil engineering dropped to fourth place at 13,771 out of 144,818. Our share of graduates dropped from 14.6 percent of all engineering students to 9.5 percent. Why? Our young STEM focused students are choosing to take their talents to computer science and electrical engineering which now hold the number two and three ranks, respectively.

So how do we address the challenge of finding these “purple unicorns,” especially knowing the competition for their talent will just intensify due to these trends? While I am aging out of this experience range, I am close enough to offer some insights into how I went from wandering the alphabet soup of engineering firms to settling down for a long-term commitment. I have found myself speaking from the heart, proclaiming, “This is the firm that I will retire from.” What led me to say this and how can you use this to help win the battle for your purple unicorn?

  1. Put your ego aside. Whether you are an owner or a Fortune 500 company executive, hiring top talent in this age range means they may not have spent the same time in the trenches as you or may not approach problems the same way as you. Let it go. They are likely in the millennial generation (born 1980 to 1995) which means they may work or use technology differently. Embrace these differences, let go of control, and dictate goals without mandating means and methods. Let them be guided by your experience not ruled by it. In these conditions, your purple unicorns will flourish, and they will attract others to join the herd.
  2. Look like them. Who is creating your recruitment content? Who is designing your website? If it doesn’t include these groups, get them involved. I sometimes imagine other companies with a group of experienced senior executives around a table talking about how their recruitment material should look, how their website should appear, or the type of individual they are looking for – and then wondering why the other firms keep attracting all the best up and coming leaders.
  3. Quality returns quality. Emphasize hiring good people and then trust them. Let the processes be guiding principles not steadfast rules. Innovation comes when need meets determination. Those determined to deliver better efficiency, better quality, or better anything will find ways to move obstacles. Fight the urge to create new forms or use the words, “That’s how it’s always been done.”
  4. Empower – really. There will be failures, but that is OK. By empowering staff to see through their ideas for optimization or innovation, the best ideas will surface. And when they do, they will be backed by the motivation and passion that comes from unbound imagination. Who better to sell your new internal process? They will perform better at achieving high uptake than someone who has not bought into a process but instead was assigned to be a “superuser” on a rollout team.
  5. Align your brand, vision, and culture. Misalignment between these is more common than not, but aligning them will deliver passion, motivation, and organic growth. Our industry’s best leaders and brightest rising stars wake up each morning and go to work knowing they are part of something bigger than themselves and are willing to work hard to meet the goals of their company. If you want to attract these types of people, don’t overlook these three core elements of your company.

The battle for these purple unicorns will only intensify as other industries continue to soak up the best STEM students. Those firms that actively work to attract these employees will be best positioned to grow and prosper. 

Ryan Gallagher, P.E., is a principal at MKN Associates. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter for free!

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.