The best strategy for AEC firms in 2019

Feb 04, 2019

“If we know recruiting and retention are the biggest challenges and our employees are telling us that training and development are the solution, isn’t the investment in a training program at your firm worth it?”

The biggest challenge AEC firms face today is staffing; specifically, recruiting and retention. But just five years ago this challenge wasn’t even in the top five critical issues facing firms, according to Zweig Group’s AEC industry research.

Why the dramatic shift? And, more importantly, why are industry leaders not giving this staffing crisis enough attention? The 2008 recession no doubt had a lasting impact on architecture and engineering. Hiring essentially stopped. Downsizing resulted in long hours for surviving technical teams. AEC professionals were overworked, and many people faced years-long salary freezes, if not pay reductions, as firms were forced to maintain with less while striving to get the work they had out the door.

Now, 10 years later, we have the opposite scenario; a booming economy with not enough people in the workforce, specifically in the eight- to 10-year experience level, to get work done. Quite simply, we have more work than we have workers – a condition that is epidemic in the subcontractor world of skilled laborers.

Zweig Group’s research shows that recruiting and retention are the greatest challenges identified by AEC firm principals today, a finding validated by my personal experiences and frequent conversations on the matter. Coincidentally, information collected during our most recent Best Firms To Work For survey shows that the number one benefit valued by AEC professionals is also the solution to firm leaders’ biggest challenge! The answer? Training and development.

So many of our firms aren’t committed to training and development as a strategy. At least not yet. In fact, 71 percent of AEC firms report they don’t have an HR budget or plan at all. And while executive search solutions like the service Zweig Group offers can be effective at attracting top talent, firms must also invest in developing their people to keep them. Training and development are the greatest recruiting and retention strategies in the AEC industry today. Through our in-house research, we ended up with over 1.6 million info-points reinforcing this fact.

Zweig Group recently developed a “heat map” to compare where the greatest margins existed between average performing firms and those that ranked among the Best Firms To Work For. The results were astounding. The greatest margins out of hundreds of subjects were all related and four of the top five included: mentoring programs; tuition reimbursement; professional development; and training and development.

Based on what we found in our research, I recommend that AEC firms this year place a heavy focus on training and development, labelled more broadly as professional learning. This should encompass all aspects of personal-professional growth and development, and reflect the top four characteristics of the Best Firms To Work For, as well as those of firms that are experiencing the highest growth.

So how do you keep your top performers or recruit the hottest talent? Learning – training and development – is where to start.

But the answer isn’t as simple as “invest in training.” Smart firms in touch with their employees often provide training programs, but these can be poorly organized, inconsistent, or just plain uninteresting. Employees also tell us they don’t feel they have the time to attend training despite the firm making courses available. My recommendation to AEC firms is to develop a culture of learning. Here are some ways to do just that:

  • Offer a strongly branded learning program. Learning programs offer deliverables in a variety of ways to meet the continually changing demands of the workforce. This can include a combination of learning methods like online courses, online or in-person libraries, in-person training, and more. Brand your campaign – like Zweig Group University, for example – so that it’s recognizable and reinforces the firm’s commitment to learning. Institute policies that foster and reward education, like incentives for completing an annual program or even tuition reimbursement/funding for external training.
  • Commit the necessary resources. Firms with staff of 50 or more may be able to justify a Training Administrator, or a partnership with a third-party company that is solely focused on developing a customized program like I suggest. If we know recruiting and retention are the biggest challenges and our employees are telling us that training and development are the solution, isn’t the investment in a training program at your firm worth it? If you want to set your firm apart in a highly competitive market, where talent gaps are a reality, use resources that differentiate your learning options from those of your competitors.
  • Offer diversity in content. One of the biggest complaints we hear from employees at firms that do have learning programs is that the content isn’t interesting. Don’t rely solely on internal resources. Bring in outside providers to infuse diversity of thought and to introduce new ideas. Internal instructors can be very effective, but external experts can help expand the firm’s perspective, offer validation to internal training materials, and often provide the latest best practices to your team. Additionally, define a curriculum that is rich in technical, business/management, and marketing/business development subject matter. Think of your program like a university that advances learning through the years, preparing the student to take on an important role. A successful learning program prepares staff for leadership in all these areas and more.
  • Create a culture of learning. A learning culture is one with organizational values, policies, and procedures that support development, and practices that encourage staff to increase knowledge, competence, and performance levels in a variety of areas and on an ongoing basis. This type of program will enable your firm to combat the greatest challenge in the industry and position your company as an attractive choice for current and prospective employees. A learning culture also empowers employees and the organization to quickly adapt to the market, facilitating change and breaking from “this is the way we’ve always done things,” a major issue in many AEC firms today.

Zweig Group’s data on this topic is compelling. So compelling, in fact, that we recently made a significant investment in learning with Marci Thompson, who joins the firm as its Chief Learning Officer. Thompson brings a tremendous resume of educational program development and delivery, most recently as CLO for the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) in Washington D.C. Her experience curating content and designing learning experiences for professionals is extensive, from 7,000- to 100,000-person organizations.

This new position was developed to elevate the educational offerings we provide to our clients and the industry. For us, this is practicing what we preach. One of the tenets of our new mission – Elevate the Industry – is to educate. Bringing Thompson onto the Zweig Group team is a demonstration of this commitment. From K-12 to the top levels of AEC firm leadership, we will strive to advance the AEC industry through learning. And, in so doing, provide the tools to directly affect recruiting and retention of the smartest people for our firms.

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at

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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.