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How One Small AEC Firm Competes for Top Talent

Wendy Smith, marketing and communications manager for CORE Consultants

 

According to McKinsey's 2020 report, The next normal in construction: How disruption is reshaping the world's largest ecosystem, 90% of construction professionals believe attracting and building talent will be the winning move in the future. That puts plenty of pressure on smaller firms who must compete with the resources of bigger AEC companies to recruit and retain the right employees. Keep reading to hear how Wendy Smith, the Marketing and Communications Manager at CORE Consultants, helped her firm grow from 50 people to 75 using simple tactics anyone can learn from, an eye on diversity, and plenty of bottles of hot sauce. 

 

How One Small Civil Engineering Firms Competes for Top Talent

 

Tell us a bit about what CORE Consultants does and your unique position in the market.

CORE Consultants offers civil engineering, natural resources, and land surveying services. We are based in Englewood, Colorado, and specialize in land development, renewable energy, and public infrastructure projects. 

I’m really proud of our mission statement, which is "Empowering people to thrive at home, at work and in their community." It is pretty unique because it focuses on people rather than the bottom line.

This all stems from our CEO, Blake Calvert, and his priorities. He started CORE in 2014 because he wanted to get back to the ‘why’ or the 'core' of why he went to work everyday. He wanted to build a company that he would want to work for — a company filled with smart people who are also fun to grab a beer with. Wanting to come to work everyday because your co-workers are great people is a big part of the culture here. 

CORE empowers people to thrive, and that includes our clients. We really believe that when our employees have balance in their lives, they’re able to deliver better design services that empower our clients and their projects to thrive too.

 

Some of the CORE team enjoying each other's company — a vital component of their company culture and recruiting efforts. Photo courtesy of CORE Consultants.

 

In 2020, CORE Consultants won Zweig Group's prestigious 1st Place Marketing Excellence Award for Recruiting and Retention. What was that experience like?

It was such a great phone call to get. I had submitted us for a local award that ended up getting postponed because of COVID, and the submission to Zweig was kind of on a lark. I was thinking it probably wouldn’t go anywhere but I was so passionate about it and had put so much work into it. 

Honestly, I was a bit shocked that we won first place in recruiting and retention because when I started off, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. All I knew is that we had the same challenge as everyone else: We were struggling with a talent shortage during a booming economy. And, we were new, small, and no one had ever heard of us before.

We were just a 50-person firm at the time, with the majority of hiring done through word of mouth or direct referrals. We were so busy, and we knew we needed to keep growing, but there was some fear around hiring people just to fill seats. We wanted to make sure our new people fit into our culture. 

But the culture piece was just one part of the recruiting puzzle. We also had a name recognition problem. Nobody really new who we were. People would say, “CORE? What’s CORE?” because we were such a new firm. I knew we had to start a recruiting program with the goal of generating interest in our firm from the right kind of people.

 

So, you really started from square one! Tell us about the beginning stages of your recruiting campaign.

We started small — deciding to just target a couple of local universities. I remembered back to when I was in college in the early 2000s and how intimidating career fairs could be. Everything just looked so corporate and frankly, terrifying.

I decided to give the students a better experience. My whole goal was to infuse CORE’s culture into our booth. I purposely had our booth imagery feature big pictures of our employees living life and having fun. It was a big departure from other firms’ booths that featured beautiful shots of their most prominent projects. 

 

CORE quickly became well-known amongst students and fellow AEC firms for giving away hot sauce at their recruiting booth. Photo courtesy of CORE Consultants.

 

It’s sort of quirky but CORE has this weird obsession with hot sauce — we've held hot sauce tastings and give hot sauce out to our clients and employees. So I ordered a few bags of chips and teeny tiny Tabasco bottles, customized with our logo. 

The other thing we love at CORE is cornhole, we’re actually the 2019 Denver Home Builders Association corn hole champions, so I brought that into our booth too. I got all set up and I started looking at all the other booths — it was a sea of blue, pens, and lanyards and our booth looked so different. Several of the firms actually came up to me before the students arrived and said, “It looks like happy hour over here.” It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I thought, ‘Good! Because we are hiring for more than just technical talent.’

It’s very similar to when we’re proposing to get a job — we’re up against other firms and we all have the same technical ability, we’re all good at what we do. It actually becomes more about, ‘Do I want to work with these people everyday?’ to the client.

 

What were the results of this new recruiting strategy?

It was so gratifying to get positive feedback from the students at that very first career fair. We had so many students come up to the table and start talking to us — it was very natural to start conversations about our markets and the types of people we hire. The culture was the primary draw, the technical was secondary. I had several students tell me, “This is so cool. No other company does this.” 

With the hot sauce, the chips, and the cornhole, our booth was like the ultimate ice-breaker — we were inviting people to come and play. We even had students coming to the booth that said, "Oh, my friend told me that your company has a great culture. What are you hiring for? Do you have a place for me?" We knew we were onto something because that was exactly the message I was trying to drive home. 

 

CORE's fun-filled booth for recruitment fairs. Photo courtesy of CORE Consultants.

Honestly, it almost worked too well because we had to turn some students away whose degrees didn’t actually apply to anything we do at CORE. Some of them even contacted our HR department, telling us how much they love our company and how our booth resonated with them. The other cool outcome is that we've had the same students come to us career fair after career fair because they remembered us and they wanted us to remember them. Name recognition is no longer an issue for us!

 

How has the pandemic affected your recruiting efforts?

The last two career fairs we’ve switched over to virtual, which we are still trying to figure out. We continue to infuse our culture into our virtual events with video and downloads about our firm. Asking the right questions has also been a vital component to virtual career fairs. 

Our CEO has an interviewing litmus test — he's found that if a potential hire is passionate about something not related to work, and will talk about it, they are someone who loves life — whether they are in or the office or outside of it. And, because passion is so central to our values, that is the type of person we want at CORE. So, I’ve been incorporating those types of questions now that I talk with students virtually. 

 

Now that you have experience recruiting in construction, how do you think the industry as a whole can do a better job of attracting and retaining talent? 

I’m not breaking any new ground by saying this, but the diversity issue in our industry needs to be fixed. The AEC industry is largely white and male-dominated. It doesn't match the make-up of our country and that's a problem. 

There’s also a huge problem in getting women to not only become engineers but to stay in the industry. I read a statistic recently that for civil engineers, only about 20% of a graduating class is female. Then I think it’s around 40% that never do anything with their degree or they leave the field altogether. 

One of our awesome engineers at CORE was telling me about a time that she was the only woman sitting in a meeting for this big mixed-use community that was being developed. They were making decisions on the material to be used on the sidewalk. This room full of men was ready to choose a material that had grooves in it that actually made it dangerous for someone wearing high heels. 

She explained that women are a giant force behind shopping and by installing this product, they would make it difficult for women to navigate the development. I love that story because it proves how important it is to have diversity in our industry. If we want to build thriving communities, we need input from everyone. Minorities, women, men — they all need a voice. 

 

Like many organizations, CORE has renewed their focus on widening recruiting pools to include more women and minorities, and on making sure all voices are heard and empowered at work. Photo courtesy of CORE Consultants.

 

Sadly, there's not just a pool of diverse individuals that you can choose from when you are hiring in the AEC industry — particularly in Colorado. How do we go about changing that so we can better serve the world around us? I’m not sure there's an easy answer. 

Like many organizations, CORE has been taking this diversity issue seriously. In talking with school counselors local STEM programs, we’ve learned this is an issue that has to be addressed well before high school or college, it needs to be fixed in middle school. That’s the age where the seed is actually planted — “Hey, you might want to think about a job designing roads and bridges, or cities or houses.”

CORE is working with a couple of different organizations: STEMblazers, who empowers middle school girls of all colors and races to see what's possible in a (science, technology, engineering, math) STEM career. It empowers them from a young age to do that. Another program, Curls on the Block, exposes girls of all curls and colors to activities, careers, and mentorship in science, technology, engineering, art, math (STEAM). As an industry, we have to invest in our young people and make sure they know what’s possible. 

Another thing we’ve been doing at CORE is recruiting at historically black or minority colleges. With the pandemic and career fairs being virtual, it's been the perfect opportunity to look beyond our geographic area. 

 

In addition to your award-winning campaign, what else has helped you generate interest for a career at CORE?

It’s so important that our CEO, Blake Calvert, is a driving force behind this change we’re talking about — widening the civil engineering talent pool and consciously choosing to make the industry more diverse. When we’re recruiting women, they are excited to hear about the work he is doing with ElevateHER or the Society of Women Engineers. Women want to work for someone who is dedicated to elevating them in this field. 

There’s a lot of people in the C-suite who don’t recognize that a lack of diversity is at the root  of their hiring problem but I’ve had women come to me after an SWE event Blake has attended and say, "I met your boss and this is really cool." It’s the best recruiting tool. 

 

What advice do you have for construction companies struggling to recruit and retain good employees? 

The biggest words of wisdom I can offer are that company culture is a really big deal. Hire for culture first and make sure it’s the right fit, so you don’t have employees constantly leaving, because that affects your culture too, in a negative way. Make sure you are infusing your recruiting campaigns and efforts with your unique company culture — even if it’s in a simple way like what we did at CORE. It will make you stand out from other firms and make hiring someone who is likely to stay just that much easier. 

Another thing that goes along with company culture is making sure yours is conducive to  women. Are you making it easy for women who have families to come back to work? Do you have a mother’s room in the office? Do women have an option to work and thrive from home? Promote women to leadership roles and use the unique skill set and perspective they can offer in your projects. Make it part of your culture to celebrate what women are contributing.

Lastly, I would say that even though this doesn’t solve the immediate problem, it’s vital to invest in future engineers to ensure a more diverse workforce in the future. Look for those middle school opportunities like participating in engineers week and STEM programs at your local school. 

 

Any marketing resource recommendations for construction leaders who want to bring some creativity and fresh thinking to the work that they do?

Start with Why by Simon Sinek is an oldie but a goodie. I always recommend reading that to anyone who hasn't. I've also been really active as a board member in the Colorado chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). I can't say enough good things about this organization; SMPS has been invaluable in building my knowledge and leadership skills for the AEC industry.