Best practices of the best workplaces

October 2007 » Exclusive
The CE News Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For 2007
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.

The CE News Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For 2007

According to numerous industry surveys, recruiting and retaining high quality employees is the leading challenge of firms practicing civil engineering today. Those firms that strive to create atmospheres where staff can flourish, feel respected, and grow are having an easier time meeting this incredible challenge. CE News hosts the Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For list annually to honor those firms that are creating the best work environment they can and give them an advantage over their peer firms. What’s more, firms that apply for the list tell us each year what a worthwhile process it is to complete the questionnaire and execute the required Employee Satisfaction Survey, as they learn about best practices that other firms are using to succeed and essentially critique their own firms.

Some might say that those best practices are different for a small, mid-sized, or large firm, while others are universal. CE News is pleased this year to have represented by our top three firms a large, mid-sized, and small firm (in that order). This feat proves that, while a large firm might have some advantages over a small firm and vice versa, firms of any size can provide staff with stellar work environments.

However, since some job seekers prefer firms of a particular size, we instituted firm-size rankings a few years ago. In addition to assisting job seekers, the firm-size rankings help firms market their honors. So the results presented here are four-fold, including the overall ranking and three firm-size rankings. All firms on the firm-size ranking lists are on the overall list as well, and are in the same relative order.

Check out the overall rankings, the small, medium, and large firm-size rankings, and the best practices being employed by the top three firms. Who knows, maybe you’ll pick up a few ideas to improve your workplace today!

Participants
This year, 145 firms applied for the Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For. As with any program such as this, there is an ebb and flow of participants from year-to-year. Eighty-one firms that participated in 2006 did not apply this year, including 11 of the top 50. However, we had 69 newcomers, including 12 firms that ranked in the top 50. Six firms that applied but didn’t make the list in 2006 are ranked this year.

The participating firms ranged in size from 8 employees to more than 5,000. The age of firms covers a wide span as well: the youngest to apply has been in practice for only 4 years and the oldest for more than 100 years.

It’s interesting to understand the make-up of the participating firms, while also shining light on some interesting statistics about the industry in general. Private ownership is the most common ownership structure for participants again this year. In fact, 103 firms (71 percent) that applied are privately owned, with a median number of nine private owners per firm. All but five firms that applied have a personnel/human resources department or dedicated personnel/human resources staff.

Most firms reported an average annual gross revenue growth rate during the past three fiscal years of between 10 percent and 20 percent. The majority indicated a net pre-tax, pre-bonus profit/loss margin of 10 percent to 14.9 percent.

The cultures at the firms that applied are as diverse as the employees working in the civil engineering industry. When asked to "rank the three most prevalent characteristics of your firm’s culture or personality," most firms described themselves as "client focused" by a significant margin (see Table 1). The least common response was "high-tech." Comparing the aggregated results of the 2007 participants to those that participated in 2005, we see that the most significant change is a 5-percent increase in firms describing themselves as "focused on integrity" and "family atmosphere."

Table 1: How participating firms describe their culture or personality, 2005 vs. 2007
 Characteristics 2005 2007 
 Client-focused 83% 86% 
 Team-oriented, collaborative 65%  66% 
 Focused on integrity 52%  56% 
 Family atmosphere 28%  33% 
 Entrepreneurial 18%  16% 
 Flexible

18% 

14% 
 Caring/philanthropic/compassionate 11%  12% 
 Fun 9%  10% 
 Supportive of individual desires 6%  7% 
 Respectful 7%  3% 
 Prideful 4%  1% 
 High-tech 1%  1% 


Equally as diverse are the programs, practices, benefits, and general philosophies of the firms that applied. For example, some highly prized benefits by some professionals are rare: only 3 percent of the firms pay all employees on maternity leave all or a portion of their salary during all or a portion of their leave, and a mere 32 percent offer domestic partner benefits.

Meanwhile, some firm programs are becoming more plentiful than in years past. For example, 80 percent of firms that applied compensate current employees for referring candidates. While the referral benefits range dramatically, 53 percent of these firms provide a monetary reward that varies depending on the position that the candidate is suited. The median minimum amount is $500, and the median maximum amount is $3,000. The in-depth descriptions of the top three firms exemplify some of the remarkable workplace practices in our industry.

The process
Executing the contest for the seventh time this year, the process did not change remarkably from last year. Following is a description of the contest process.

CE News announced in January that applications were being accepted and posted the application form (known as the Corporate Survey) online. Firms responded to the questions and returned the application. Next, the firms launched an Employee Satisfaction Survey to their staff. Firms were told to achieve a minimum 20-percent response rate for the anonymous survey.

Next, our staff graded the Corporate and Employee Satisfaction Surveys, which make up the two equally-weighted components of the grading process, for all firms, and determined a raw score for each component. (The method used to determine the raw scores is described below.) We used the standard deviation and mean to distribute the firms’ scores for each component, which gave more weight to firms that scored well outside of the average. We used the sum of the distributed scores for both components to rank the firms. The top 50 firms and five honorable mentions will be honored.

The top three firms made it to the final round. The judging panel members re-ranked these firms based on their best judgment. We tallied the judges’ results to establish the ranking order of the top three firms.

The Judging Panel
Tim Cooper
Senior vice president, employee benefits consultant for JBL&K Risk Services of Portland, Ore.

Larry Gard, Ph.D.
Senior consultant with Gard Executive Consulting, LLC of Chicago

Carol A. Metzner
President of The Metzner Group, LLC of Myersville, Md.

Michael Zmugg
Consultant with ZweigWhite, headquartered in Chicago
Finally, firm-size rankings were developed by categorizing the firms on the overall ranking list by size and keeping the same relative order.

To determine the raw scores used to rank the contestants, the Corporate and Employee Satisfaction Surveys are evaluated objectively in the following manner:

Corporate Survey—Our staff graded the Corporate Survey (CS) for all competing firms. Most questions on the Corporate Survey were graded using one of two methods. The first type compared a firm’s response with the median response of the contestant pool. If a firm met or exceeded the median, then a point(s) was awarded. For example, the median voluntary turnover rate for all the firms that entered the contest was 9 percent. Therefore, if a firm had a 9 percent or lower turnover rate, it earned points; firms with a turnover rate higher than 9 percent did not earn any points. Questions deemed to quantify more important aspects about firms were worth more points than those questions indicating less important information about firms. For some particularly important questions, bonus points were awarded if a firm met or exceeded the third quartile (75th percentile) of all firms.

The second method simply awarded a point(s) if a benefit was offered or if the affirmative response to a question was given. For example, if a firm offers a flexible medical spending account to staff, it earned points; likewise, if a firm said it has a non-discriminatory culture regarding age, gender, race, and religion, it earned points. More important attributes were worth more points; for example, hosting a company picnic annually wasn’t worth as many points as beating the average voluntary turnover rate.

Questions were arranged by categories, including culture, benefits, performance/recognition, compensation, professional development, recruiting and retention, and general.

Employee Satisfaction Survey—All of the non-narrative Employee Satisfaction Survey (ESS) questions were graded (other than the demographic questions) using a method that compared, for each question, a firm’s average positive response to the average positive response of the contestant pool (referred to as the Benchmark). For example, employees were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 6, where 1 is the most undesirable response and 6 is the most desirable response, how well their firm provided a team environment. For each firm, we calculated the percentage of respondents who responded with a 5 or a 6, and compared it to the percentage of respondents overall who responded with a 5 or a 6 to this question (the Benchmark). If a firm met or exceeded the Benchmark, it earned a point for the question. Additionally, bonus points were provided for firms that met or exceeded the 90th percentile on certain questions, which are the most telling/important of those asked in the ESS.

Questions were arranged by categories, including culture, benefits, performance/ recognition, compensation, professional development, recruiting and retention, and general. For each firm, the total points earned for each category were normalized so that each category had a total of 10 points. This step helped to account for the fact that there were many more graded questions in some categories than others and that some categories’ questions weren’t necessarily as important as others with fewer questions. Next, a unique weighting factor was applied to each category’s normalized point total. The weighting factors are based on data collected from the 2004 Employee Satisfaction Survey conducted for the Best Civil Engineering Firm To Work For Contest. We asked many questions about what was important to the employees of civil engineering firms so that we could better determine how to weight types of questions in the future, rather than going by assumptions. For example, we learned that employees believe that a firm’s culture is more important than its professional development programs. More than 12,000 employees’ responses were incorporated into these findings. Finally, the sum of the weighted total points for each category was determined; this was the total raw score for the ESS component of the overall score.

Finally, the mean and standard deviation were used in combination with the CS scores to rank the firms. This puts the ESS and the CS on a level playing field for determining the final ranks. (Otherwise the CS may seem worth more than the ESS, or vice versa, if the point ranges aren’t similar.)

Overall ranking

Rank, Company, Firm Headquarters, No. of Employees
1 Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., Cary, N.C, 2,361
2 Wolverton & Associates, Inc., Duluth, Ga., 105
3 Sharrah Dunlap Sawyer, Inc., Redding, Calif., 41
4 Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa, 1,040
5 McCarthy Engineering Associates, P.C., West Lawn, Pa., 27
6 Walter P Moore and Associates, Inc., Houston, Texas, 365
7 Pacific Advanced Civil Engineering, Inc., Fountain Valley, Calif., 97
8 Fehr & Peers, Walnut Creek, Calif., 193
9 Winzler & Kelly Consulting Engineers, Santa Rosa, Calif., 294
10 Mid-Valley Engineering, Inc., Modesto, Calif., 146
11 J.L. Patterson & Associates, Orange, Calif., 54
12 Provost & Pritchard Engineering Group, Inc., Fresno Calif., 153
13 Dibble Engineering, Phoenix, Ariz., 75
14 R.A. Smith & Associates, Inc., Brookfield, Wis., 250
15 Roth Hill Engineering Partners, LLC, Bellevue, Wash., 54
16 Hall & Foreman, Inc., Irvine, Calif., 218
17 Traffic Planning and Design, Inc., Pottstown, Pa., 125
18 Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, Elmwood Park, N.J., 650
19 David Evans and Associates, Inc., Portland, Ore., 1,049
20 Linscott, Law & Greenspan, Engineers, Costa Mesa, Calif., 60
21 CRW Engineering Group, LLC, Anchorage, Alaska, 51
22 Geotechnical & Environmental Services, Inc., Las Vegas, Nev., 40
23 Chen and Associates, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 27
24 Atwell-Hicks, Ann Arbor, Mich., 476
25 Psomas, Los Angeles, Calif., 800
26 Delta Airport Consultants, Inc., Richmond, Va., 85
27 Robert Peccia and Associates, Helena, Mont., 54
28 Wood Rodgers, Inc., Sacramento, Calif., 355
29 Miller Legg, Pembroke Pines, Fla., 188
30 Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., Watertown, Mass., 964
31 Harper Houf Peterson Righellis Inc., Portland, Ore., 70
32 Kapur & Associates, Inc., Milwaukee, Wis., 108
33 OBEC Consulting Engineers, Eugene, Ore., 111
34 West Yost Associates, Davis, Calif., 109
35 Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, Inc., Sparks, Md., 538
36 Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., Waltham, Mass., 318
37 Riedesel Engineering, Inc., Twin Falls, Idaho, 38
38 Wallace Group, San Luis Obispo, Calif., 102
39 Nitsch Engineering, Inc., Boston, Mass., 57
40 Affinis Corp., Overland Park, Kan., 32
41 Golder Associates, Atlanta, Ga., 1,106
42 Infrastructure Engineering Corp., Poway, Calif., 50
43 P.W. Grosser Consulting, Inc., Bohemia, N.Y., 49
44 Morton & Pitalo, Inc., Sacramento, Calif., 90
45 Schnabel Engineering, Inc. Glen Allen,Va. 387
46 Entellus, Inc., Phoenix, Ariz., 60
47 Nobis Engineering, Inc., Concord, N.H., 70
48 Chiang, Patel & Yerby, Inc., Dallas, Texas, 180
49 J-U-B Engineers, Inc., Boise, Idaho, 290
50 Wallace-Kuhl and Associates, Inc., West Sacramento, Calif., 205

First place: Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc. (KHA), headquartered in Cary, N.C., ranks No. 1 on the top 50 list for the second consecutive year, and the third year in the program’s history. Established in 1967, the firm boasts 62 offices across the country and more than 2,300 employees. The firm offers services in the following markets: airports and aviation, environmental services, forensic engineering, intelligent transportation, land development, transit, transportation, urban planning, landscape, water resources, and wireless communications. It is a privately-owned firm with 264 owners.

Judge Michael Zmugg, a consultant with ZweigWhite, headquartered in Chicago, ranked KHA as his top choice for the list: "Once again, KHA has set the standard for what it means to be a ’Best Firm To Work For.’ Kimley-Horn has not only sustained a level of growth and success that very few firms are able to achieve, but it has also created a culture and environment that many firms strive to replicate. Kimley-Horn has demonstrated a commitment to their employees—it is this commitment that continues to fuel the firm’s success and it is what makes Kimley-Horn this year’s Best Firm to Work For."

Tim Cooper, senior vice president, employee benefits consultant for JBL&K Risk Services of Portland, Ore., was impressed with the benefits offered by the winning firm. He said, "The 401(k)/profit sharing plan, which provided an employer contribution equal to 21 percent of compensation in 2006, highlights the outstanding employee benefit package offered by Kimley-Horn." He went on to praise Kimley-Horn’s unique "practice builder" model, which allows employees the opportunity to build their own successful engineering practice within the firm rather than limit promotional opportunities to management positions.

Such cultural features of the firm were also admired by Larry Gard, Ph.D.,
senior consultant with Gard Executive Consulting, LLC of Chicago, a firm that applies behavioral science to enhance executive and organizational performance. He said, "Kimley-Horn has done an admirable job of encouraging and harnessing both individual and shared initiative; few firms are able to motivate people successfully in both realms. Their corporate philosophy and team orientation encourages individuals to find meaning and satisfaction from being part of a collective endeavor. Through thoughtful hiring, a one-profit-center approach, and by holding owners as accountable for performance as they do non-owners, Kimley Horn is building a culture in which the individual and the firm genuinely count on one another and truly benefit from each others’ success."

Carol A. Metzner, president of The Metzner Group, LLC of Myersville, Md., noted specific benefits the firm is offering and how it helps set Kimley-Horn apart from others in the industry. She said, "In reviewing employment offers, many potential employees are taking an increased interest in benefit packages. Benefits sensitive to new families are desirable to a generation wanting to find a home-work balance. Traditionally, most new fathers combine sick and vacation leave to be home with their families. Many firms still discourage paternal time off, but KHA continues to move ahead of the curve in providing above-industry-standard benefit packages. KHA has expanded and improved their parental benefits package to include not only paternal leave, but increased adoption benefits. Similarly, benefits that support naturopathic/chiropractic/massage therapies offer employees a multitude of avenues to help them focus on their health."

The firm’s Kimley-Horn Foundation is a symbol of pride for the entire firm. Metzner said, "KHA continues to support community service activities through the company foundation. Many employee-selected organizations receive financial support, as well as employee time. Supporting communities where employees live and KHA helps to build remains a commitment for the company." The foundation, formed in April 2000, has allowed the endowment to grow to more than $1 million. Recently, grants were distributed for disaster recovery in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Second Place: Wolverton & Associates, Inc., (WAI), headquartered in Duluth, Ga., is a much smaller and younger firm than KHA, but is recognized for offering employees with an enviable workplace environment. Founded in 1989, the firm has 105 employees working in one office and is privately owned by six owners. Its areas of practice include site engineering, transportation and traffic engineering, structural engineering, land surveying, aerial mapping, subsurface utility engineering, and mining engineering.

Judge Gard recognized the following merits of the firm: "Wolverton and Associates has incorporated an impressive number of best practices in their relatively short tenure, and it shows: their median employee tenure [the median number of years that employees have worked at the firm] is double that of the other finalists."

Gard also was impressed with employee feedback. "Their Employee Satisfaction Survey score is the highest and most consistent with their Corporate Survey score, suggesting that employees believe that the firm walks the talk."
He continued, "Their annual formal strategic planning process helps encourage a sense of ownership and accountability. It begins with employee input, and once a plan is formulated and open to employee scrutiny, it serves to inspire and motivate. Their extensive professional development programs emphasize both the technical and the ’people’ side of their business, including a high potential leadership program and a project manager training program."

Zmugg noted, "Collaboration, communication, and camaraderie are a few of the keys to Wolverton & Associates’ success. It is uncommon to see such a deep level of excitement about the core values, goals, [and] vision of the firm throughout the organization—it is part of the reason why WAI is one of the top firms in this year’s list."

Metzner recognized some of the specific aspects of the firm that make it shine. She said, "Wolverton employees report confidence in a competent, trust-worthy leadership team. Employees describe a culture where a team environment exists that supports them in providing quality work for their clients.

"Employees are kept on board with a generous benefit package and a comfortable working environment. A company fitness challenge and the ’Wolverton Idol’ contests encourage staff to add ’fun’ into their work life." In addition, she said, "Employees are rewarded for excellent performance in a variety of ways: cash bonuses, employee recognition programs and social outings."

Metzner added, "The company offers a complete health care package, including 100-percent paid medical and dental insurance for employees. Corporate discount programs for cell phones and computer purchases, pet insurance, and auto/home insurance are offered."

Third place: Sharrah Dunlap Sawyer, Inc. (SDS), headquartered in Redding, Calif., is the smallest firm in the top tier, employing only 41 people. It has one office and six owners. Established in 1965, the firm provides residential and commercial site design, landscape architecture, land surveying, land use planning, structural engineering, and graphic presentations.

Cooper cited that the firm maintains "a team environment, which provides a caring and family atmosphere combined." He also commented on how its "outstanding employee benefit package and great place to live make Sharrah Dunlap Sawyer one of the Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For." Cooper recognized the value its "onsite fitness center, a focus on wellness, and a comprehensive employee benefits plan assist in making SDS an outstanding employer."

Metzner said, "This small firm has employees who pull together as a team to achieve goals. They describe a caring, family atmosphere. Staff also report positive relationships between themselves and their managers. Most impressive is the CEO’s monthly ’Hot Seat Lunch.’ Employees are open to attend this informal, voluntary meeting and encouraged to question and talk about issues. With an industry low voluntary turnover rate of 2.4 percent, these luncheons may offer an excellent forum to address concerns before they become problems."

Metzner added, "SDS’s expansive benefits program offers 100 percent coverage for employee and spouse/family for medical, dental, and vision. A multitude of related benefits are offered to all employees who work at least 24 hours a week."

Gard was impressed most by SDS’s "process for evaluating employees. They emphasize ongoing feedback, but in addition, their annual performance review is very comprehensive and well-conceived." He also said, "SDS appears to have a flexible culture that adapts to employees’ strengths and they are able to recognize that mistakes, on occasion, can be valued as learning opportunities. Their ’Budding Supervisor Program’ is to be commended as a fine example of employee development."

Zmugg’s comments about SDS were succinct, yet telling: "SDS’s leaders understand what it takes to be a Best Firm To Work For. The firm’s professional development opportunities, outstanding benefits program, and team environment all help make SDS stand out."

Conclusion
In conclusion, I wish to thank all 145 firms that applied this year. You all deserve a pat on the back for throwing the dice and seeing how you stacked up. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you learned from the process how to improve your firm. Additionally, thanks to our judging panel for your dedicated service to making this another successful program.


More esteemed firms
In addition to the firms that made the top 50 list, five other firms receive special recognition for creating high levels of employee satisfaction and providing an above-bar workplace environment. This year’s honorable mentions include the following:

Allied Engineering Services, Inc., Bozeman, Mont., 32 employees
www.alliedengineering.com

BKF Engineers, Redwood City, Calif., 230 employees
www.bkf.com

C2AE , Lansing, Mich., 103 employees
www.c2ae.com

G. C. Wallace Companies, Las Vegas, 398 employees
www.gcwallace.com

Wade Trim, Detroit, 466 employees
www.wadetrim.com


Mark your calendar!
If your firm didn’t apply this year, or if you didn’t make the list, you are encouraged to apply next year. To be sure you don’t miss out on the 2008 entry information, sign up today for our Contest Contact List. Go to the Best Firm To Work For Portal at and click on the link "Click here to register on the Best Firms To Work For Contest Contact List." Also, you will find a copy of the 2007 application documents so that you can review what is required to enter (although we may make adjustments to the requirements, so check back in January, even if you don’t meet the past requirements.) We will make adjustments to the Corporate Survey, but reviewing the instructions and types of questions asked will help you get a feel for the competition. Expect to hear updates in January 2008.

One important note to newcomers: Rest assured that regardless of your ranking status, our staff will not disclose your score, nor will we release the names of firms that applied but did not make the top 50 or honorable mention lists.

Hope to hear from you in 2008!


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