Bridging the Talent Gap: How Good Firms Get Great People
By Kerry Harding
President and Chief Recruiting Officer, The Talent Bank, Inc.
What if I were to stand on the street in front of The White House and ask 100 people passing by two questions: “Can you name a famous engineer?” and “Can you name a famous basketball player.” Somebody did this once. On the engineer side, 3 people offered John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was the top vote getter. Of those same 100 people, 87 said, without any hesitation whatsoever, to the second question, “Michael Jordan.” I pondered a third question: Why aren’t there more superstars in engineering firms?
Unlike professional sports, no system exists to identify and track top design talent. For 2011, a simple Internet search revealed that UCLA’s Gerrit Cole was Major League Baseball’s top draft pick; Auburn’s Cam Newton was the National Football League’s top draft pick; and Duke’s Kyrie Irving the top pick for the National Basketball Association. Stats like these are available back to the early 1950s. Yet, who were the top ten engineering firm graduates in the country last year? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Where did they start their careers? Where are they now? Compiling this information would take hundreds of hours— even if privacy laws even made it possible. What does the professional sports world have that the engineering professions could implement to institutionalize this type of knowledge? Several things:
The Scout. Each year, roughly 85,000+ engineering graduates enter the profession. In their respective schools, professors deem a handful of people as “the rising stars.” Some are easily identifiable, winning student chapter awards or national student design competitions, making the Dean’s List, or winning top academic and leadership honors at graduation. No regional or national repository exists for those involved in engineering firm recruiting to tap into to annually review emerging young talent’s credentials. In pro sports, this is the Scout’s function who travels from city to city, watching people in action, talking with their coaches, etc. The opportunity exists to begin building a database of “ones to watch.”
The Draft. In the sports world, a formal process exists for bringing top talent together with top firms in an objective, organized way. The benefit is that everyone involved knows all the candidates at the outset to compare credentials. Yet, no such process exists to link engineering firms with the national engineering talent pool that emerges at graduation. True, some schools have established job bank programs to allow their own students and alumni to interact, yet most fall woefully short of the potential that exists or simply serve the immediate region.
The Rookie. Once a student makes the transformation from campus to company, their progress gets lost in the academic system. Professional society awards are one way that that young talented people, early in their career, remain visible. However, since a qualifying criteria is to be “under 40” that provides a window of nearly two decades of career growth and makes the assumption that all new grads have equal interests, skills and opportunities.
The Farm Team. Successful sports franchises’ system ensures a consistent supply of talent. Young talent is identified and sent to smaller, regional entities to ensure they acquire the skills necessary to compete in the upper echelons. For some, playing at this level will be as far as they progress, while others will clearly emerge as ready for the majors. In engineering firms, this manifests itself in several ways—the market sector studio, the discipline team or the branch office. Providing young professionals the chance to rotate through a variety of roles and project types will reveal where the person’s true passion and best fit lies.
Sports teams know that their people need to identify where they function best and then refine the specific skills to excel at those. Too often, in design firms, a person best suited to for actual project work gets promoted into project management or principal-level positions. Being a good center doesn’t mean someone will be a good quarterback. An ace engineer may not excel at managing people or projects.
The Major Leagues. Within any given sport, the top performers deliver results in spite of who wins their respective national championships. This is equally true with engineering firms. While there are large firms whose fortunes ebb and flow like the tide, there are others who experience steady growth and consistently maintain adequate backlog and profitability along with brand integrity. These firms are always recruiting strategic hires not just for the next year but for the next generation–that elusive but essential combination of talent and cultural fit.
The Dream Team. Through time and planning, any design firm can assemble or acquire a Dream Team for a particular market sector—where all of the positions are covered by people considered among the best in their profession in areas such as aviation, transit facilities, stadiums, toll roads and rail. Sometimes, dream teams aren’t built—they’re acquired. In other cases, through assembling a cadre of talented generalists, a firm assembles its own dream team for a specific geographic area. If you want to begin building your own Dream Team, there are several key things to begin doing right now.
Offer career opportunities, not jobs. Most jobs advertised on the major jobboards describe skills, duties and responsibilities–not exciting career challenges. This precludes the best from even applying. Define top performance for every job in a clear statement of what the person must do to be successful. By clarifying performance expectations you’ll attract top candidates and more accurately assess their competency. Use this profile to manage, reward and motivate your new team.
Figure out who you need to hire over the six months and the next five years. The hiring process needs to be forward-looking, providing time to find the best candidates available, and not lower your standards to succumb to business pressures to get someone “yesterday.”
Go after those who are looking for a better job, not those who need a job. Everyone knows that the best people are usually not found on job boards, which represented only about 10% of all hires last year. You’ll find better candidates through a formalized employee-referral program and an established relationship with a knowledgeable recruiter whose job it is to know who in the marketplace is discretely looking for that next rung on the ladder. Use a multipronged method to upgrade your sourcing programs to target the best.
Formalize a complete recruiting process, including practical training. Research shows that for most line managers, the typical interview is only 7% more accurate than flipping a coin. If everyone who plays a role in the hiring process from the receptionist to the president haven’t been thoroughly trained, you’ll wind up with similar results. Top candidates view a new job as a strategic decision based on growth opportunities and chemistry. They need more information than just compensation, benefits and job duties to make a decision—they want an inspiring interview.
Tie compensation to value to the firm, not salary structures. In the sports world, when pro teams want to attract super-athletes, their managers don’t say “Well, everybody else with X-year’s experience makes Y thousand dollars a year, so, as much as we like you, that’s as high as we go! They know that unique talent merits unique compensation. Most engineering firm managers still approach recruiting like they’re haggling with a car dealer…”How low will they go?” Recruiters across the country routinely share their frustration that deals frequently unravel over a salary difference of $10,000-$15,000—especially where there’s a dramatic difference in the cost of living. In one case, a firm lost the top candidate to a competitor because it refused to cover the candidate’s airfare for the interview. In another, the deal breaker was simply an extra week’s vacation.
In hot markets where the number of credible individual experts in the country can be counted on two hands, the difference between closing and blowing the deal can be the fee for just one small job. Design firms need to identify the top talent in their target or geographic markets, and then craft creative compensation programs that effectively combine salary with incentives. A prominent firm recently lost a nationally-renown market sector leader because it implemented firm-wide financial austerity measures with no raises, no bonuses and a 10% across-the-board pay cut for all principals, even though the studio of the person in question had posted record earnings for the period in question. Why? Another firm, already in the top five but vying for the top slot, saw an opportunity and seized it. Design firm success hinges on the synergy of individual talent with market opportunities. Attracting superstars and supporting them with a strong bench in sales, technology and operations will ensure that, when it comes to winning work, your firm will always get to the playoffs and may even win the championship.
About the Author: A former executive with the nation’s top A/E firms, accomplished author and agent of design firm change, Kerry Harding serves as President and Chief Recruiting Officer of The Talent Bank, Inc. an executive recruiting and management consulting firm founded in 1984, specializing exclusively in strategic recruiting of design professionals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org