Standing proud

October 2009 » Exclusive
The 2009 CE News Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.
Traffic Planning and Design, Inc.
TPD staff gathers near the Pottstown, Pa.-office at the site of an award-winning project — a pedestrian access walkway linking a local community college’s campus via n historic railroad overpass.

With great pleasure and pride, CE News presents the 2009 Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For. An annual highlight for our staff and many firms nationwide, this ranking program has become a significant recruiting and retention mechanism during its nine-year history. And now, more than in most years, it’s refreshing to hear about firms that are doing right by their staff, even in an uncertain economic environment.

Here we list the top 40 firms and our honorable mentions. Rankings by firm size are listed below. On the pages that follow, you can learn more about the firms and what makes them standout.

Participants
Participants in the Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For change annually, making this a different type of ranking, for example, than the popular college rankings, which have a fixed universe of competitors year after year. Firms cite reasons such as having timing conflicts, too much professional service work to do, major management changes, mergers and acquisitions, layoffs, or a down year as reasons why they decide not to apply. To put it in perspective, 15 of the top 50, in 2008 firms did not apply this year. Alternately, each year new firms decide to apply for the first time, thinking they may have what it takes to rank.

Since our method for evaluation relates many criteria to the pool of applicants, a firm maintaining its excellent workplace practices and employee satisfaction may drop or rise on our list, compared with the quality of the other firms that apply. Nineteen firms on this year’s top 40 list and eight honorable mentions weren’t on the top 50 list in 2008.

Looking at the firms that did apply this year, we find a strong group — and a busy one. In the past year, they worked on strengthening their firms in vast ways, regardless of the difficult economy. It seems many firms heeded advice from peers and business experts to take the slowdown as a time to focus inward, preparing for a brighter future. Here we’ll give a deep look at our top three firms, what they do, and how they’ve improved.

A closer look
First Place: Traffic Planning and Design, Inc. (TPD) — Providing highway design, bridge design and inspection, transportation planning, traffic signal system design, municipal transportation engineering services, construction management and inspection, and environmental services, TPD has created an enviable culture of high-quality work and commitment to staff.

Judge Carol Metzner said, “While many firms respond to the stressed market by reducing staff, promotions, benefits, and offices, TPD seems to have taken an opposite approach. They make these decisions with an eye to the future successes of happy employees and satisfied clients.

Traffic Planning and Design, Inc.
In 2009, despite tough economic conditions, TPD celebrated its 20th anniversary through multiple informal and formal company-sponsored events in recognition of the contributions of staff and their families.
“TPD has taken steps to assure staff that the firm is committed to their job security and well-being. To accomplish this, they have adopted a ‘staff preservation goal’ which translates to ‘no layoffs.’ Company leaders want employees to focus on their careers and their projects, as opposed to worrying if they will receive a pink slip. This is an admirable and tough practice for any company to adopt. Likewise, clients experience continuity of company contacts and project teams. Satisfied clients translates into future business and profits. This seems to be a win-win-win situation.”

Judge Larry Gard, Ph.D., said, “TPD has crafted an exceptional corporate culture, and it works. This is one of the few firms that has successfully implemented genuine flex time. Flexible hours sound great on paper, but making it work in real life requires a significant commitment by all the stakeholders. It requires individual responsibility and unfettered communication across all levels of the organization. TPD has succeeded in part because they’ve managed to inculcate a spirit of true accountability among their people, they clearly communicate expectations, and they provide straightforward performance evaluations. The staff comments consistently cite flex time as one of their most-valued benefits.

“TPD’s commitment to work-life balance extends beyond offering flex-time. The firm’s strategy for growth takes into consideration commute times and relocation preferences. They try to establish offices with an eye toward easing commutes and providing opportunities for staff to easily transfer among locations.

Gard also spoke highly of TPD’s professional development practices. He said, “TPD takes professional development seriously. They invest more money in training and development than the other finalists. Their annual 360° evaluations are particularly thoughtful and reflect best practices. They include extensive qualitative feedback in addition to numerical ratings, they take the time to carefully review the findings with each person, and they revisit the material mid-year to reflect on individual progress. The firm is careful to link new employees with a mentor, and they pursue a sustainable hiring approach so that they don’t bring on new staff members if they don’t have mentors available.

Even a firm with the most genuine culture, great benefits, and a superior management team can flounder if communication isn’t clear, frequent, and thoughtful. Judge Barbara Irwin said, “The firm has done a tremendous job in communicating to their staff both the positive and the negative of what’s happening, not only with their firm, but also how the economic downturn impacts both the firm and employees. TPD recognizes that communication is crucial during bad times because it helps to decrease the anxiety that employees may have about their futures with the firm.”

But even though this frequent visitor on the CE News Best Firms To Work For list seems to have it all, it knows better. TPD stays busy trying to be better. The firm reported that last year it expanded its intranet site — The TPD.community — as a resource to further promote its “one company, multiple locations” philosophy. TPD said, “Beyond its value as an information resource for everything from engineering spreadsheets to health care benefits, The TPD.community provides an open forum for the exchange of ideas and information among all members of our organization. As the company continues to grow larger and more diverse, this virtual ‘meeting place’ will also simultaneously define and reflect the culture of our organization, an important part of what makes TPD unique.”

Second place: Transpo Group — A transportation planning and engineering firm that serves public and private clients, Transpo Group offers staff support, development, and open dialogue.

Gard said, “Transpo Group has a particularly thoughtful approach to managing people. In fact, they don’t even use the term manager. Instead, individuals have a Talent and Capabilities Facilitator, who is charged with helping them be their best.”

Transpo Group
Transpo Group employees adopted a local roadway as one of the monthly volunteer activities the firm supports. Transpo encourages team members to be active contributors to the local community including paid time for volunteering, employer matched charitable giving, and organized donation drives.

Like other top-notch firms, Transpo Group’s management facilitates an open dialogue with staff and encourages improvement. Gard commented on this attribute of the firm, saying, “TPD solicits feedback from staff and takes it seriously; during a monthly meeting with all staff, the president discusses items from the firm’s suggestion box and explores how they can be implemented.

Gard was also impressed with aspects of the firm’s professional development, as were the other two judges. Gard noted that “Transpo Group recognizes that not all development can be accomplished with training. Sometimes it requires a more nuanced approach, and to that end they are to be commended for having an executive coach available on a monthly basis. Even during these tough economic times, they see this service as invaluable and they’ve elected to retain it.”

Metzner said, “Meeting the challenges facing the industry, Transpo Group responds by continuing staff training through a variety of avenues. Where many firms are curtailing benefits and training, the company has not, and recognizes the need to continue development of their most valuable asset — their employees! Their care of their staff translates into employee loyalty as seen in tenure, as well as positive employee feedback on the firm. Specifically, staff feedback centers on the collaborative, team-oriented and flexible culture of the company. Professionally fulfilled employees usually lead to creative project teams and satisfied clients.”

Irwin honed in on what the employees said about the firm in the staff survey. She said, “In the employee survey responses, the Transpo Group’s employees continuously used the words integrity, respect, team-oriented, flexible, and family-oriented in their descriptions of the organization and its leadership. In today’s economy and uncertain times, it is important for firms to continue to instill the importance of these characteristics, as the industry plows through the recession and focuses on the long-term success of the business and retention of staff. As one employee stated: ‘Transpo is dedicated first and foremost to the employees and is constantly looking at new ways to improve the work place.’ This firm will not only succeed in client-service but employee retention as well.”

So what has Transpo Group been working to improve in the past year? It instituted a thorough disaster recovery plan for all components of its information technology system, a new client feedback survey, developed and implemented an extensive leadership coaching program, improved on-boarding process for new employees at all levels, and clarified and communicated its ownership transition plan.

Third place: Fehr & Peers (F&P) — F&P provides clients a diverse mix of services, including bicycle and pedestrian planning, educational/expert services, intelligent transportation systems, land use and transportation planning, parking, smart growth, traffic calming, traffic engineering design, traffic operations, transit planning and operations, transportation systems planning, and travel demand forecasting.

The Judges
Larry Gard, Ph.D.
Psychologist and Senior Consultant, Gard Executive Consulting, LLC, Chicago
Barbara Irwin
President, HR Advisors Group, LLC, Herndon, Va.
Carol A. Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC, Myersville, Md.

The three judges looked at this company’s stated mission, values, and descriptions to understand what makes F&P great. Irwin said, “The firm’s mission statement says it all: ‘Our mission is to empower every employee to develop effective and innovative transportation solutions that improve communities.’ The organization recognizes the connection between their employees and the success of their business.”

Metzner added, “Fehr & Peers describes the company as one in which they strive to be the best at what they do. To reach that goal, they promote employee personal and professional growth in a myriad of ways. From the Fehr & Peers Academy of in-house training programs to support of outside programs, the company acknowledges the need for continuing professional education. Employees report that company leaders take an interest in their professional development and that the company mentoring programs allow for more direct involvement. Leaders foster an entrepreneurial environment and encourage staff to be passionate in their work. This is facilitated through open communication and an open-door policy. Employees describe the opportunity to work on interesting projects in a team-oriented collaborative environment.

Gard said, “A most impressive core value at Fehr & Peers is their focus on ‘work that is fulfilling but not consuming.’ The firm believes that it is impossible to provide outstanding client service without having employees who have an appropriately balanced perspective about work and non-work priorities. Knowing that the work/life balance may be different from employee-to-employee, and priorities can change for a given employee over the course of time, their approach is to be proactive, flexible, and tailored to an individual’s situation at a given point in time.”

Fehr & Peers
Career advancement is a high priority at Fehr & Peers. in June 2008, Fehr & Peers merged with Mirai Associates in Seattle. Since then, six individuals have relocated to Seattle to take on new leadership roles.

Gard went on to cite organizational attributes that support the firm’s workplace environment. “Fehr & Peers encourages staff to become involved in the firm in ways that go beyond just their job. For example, although they are organized geographically, they have seven technical discipline groups that welcome and incorporate staff from multiple offices; these groups then help shape the company’s ideas and strategies around key technical areas of service.

F&P has several unique management practices that other firms could benefit from implementing. Gard commented, “The company has taken a number of powerful and thoughtful steps to motivate staff performance. For example, when considering senior staff bonuses they used to have hard revenue and chargeability targets. They found that such metrics could lead to unintended consequences such as the pursuit of more work than staff could handle. Senior staff bonuses are now based on how effectively they delegate responsibilities and develop more junior staff.”

Meanwhile Metzner described a unique program the firm has instituted “to reduce stress on company managers.” She explained, “Fehr & Peers implemented a Professional Manager program. These staff members, trained in people management, relieve responsibilities from technical leaders and are readily accessible to employees and focus on their issues/needs. Additionally, managers were relieved of chargeability targets, which made a more balanced working environment for all employees.”

But like TPD and Transpo Group, F&P’s management knows that continual improvement is a hallmark of a “best firm to work for.” According to the firm, in the last year, F&P has made four significant improvements/changes, including the following: expanded technical services to focus on emerging environmental areas, such as climate change; expanded geographic market areas in Southern California and Seattle for enhanced employee growth and experience; expanded Discipline Groups to a broader group of the employees; and enhanced sick leave benefits.

Conclusion
Thanks to ZweigWhite’s expert research and management consulting staff who executed the Best Firms To Work For program on behalf of CE News. In addition to conducting the research for this program, ZweigWhite also provides strategic insight for firms that want to become a Best Firm To Work For or to advance beyond their current position in the rankings; contact ZweigWhite for more details.

Of course, we also appreciate the dedication all the firms that applied this year showed to their employees, and trust that the application process and employee survey results proved valuable, regardless of their standing on the list. We all learn when we are challenged to critique ourselves, and this program certainly does that well!

Additionally, special thanks to the thousands of employees at the participating firms who took the employee satisfaction survey. Your honest feedback is essential to the success of this ranking.

And finally, thanks to our expert judges who evaluated our top three firms to ensure the best ranking order for them.

2009 Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For
Rank Firm Rank Firm
1 Traffic Planning and Design, Inc. 26 ABMB Engineers, Inc.
2 Transpo Group 27 Franson Civil Engineers Inc.
3 Fehr & Peers 28 Provost & Pritchard Engineering Group, Inc.
4 Walter P Moore 29 RMC Water and Environment
5 Simpson Gumpertz & Heger 30 Sam Schwartz Engineering
6 AE2S 31 DKS Associates
7 Freese and Nichols, Inc. 32 Entellus, Inc.
8 Delta Airport Consultants, Inc. 33 Shea, Carr & Jewell, Inc.
9 Calibre Engineering, Inc. 34 Blackburn Consulting
10 Schnabel Engineering, Inc. 35 Chen and Associates
11 West Yost Associates 36 Foresite Group
12 CRW Engineering Group, LLC 37 Slater Hanifan Group, Inc.
13 Barr Engineering Company 38 Fulghum, MacIndoe, & Associates, Inc.
14 Mead & Hunt 39 A. Morton Thomas and Associates, Inc.
15 Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck, Inc. 40 Golder Associates Inc.
16 RW Armstrong HM CP&Y, Inc.
17 Roth Hill Engineering Partners, LLC HM Gewalt Hamilton Associates, Inc.
18 Haley Nelson Associates HM Infrastructure Engineering Corporation
19 Nitsch Engineering HM JEO Consulting Group, Inc.
20 BKF Engineers HM MVE | CIVIL SOLUTIONS
21 Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson HM R&M Consultants, Inc.
22 M.D. Wessler & Associates HM Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, Inc.
23 Milone & MacBroom, Inc. HM Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.
24 J.L. Patterson & Associates, Inc. HM Vector Engineering, Inc.
25 Nichols Consulting Engineers HM Winzler & Kelly
    HM = Honorable mention
 

Superlative spotlight
The following superlatives celebrate the noteworthy individual successes of firms for specific achievements, independent of their overall ranking:

Highest employee survey score: Foresite Group
Since its inception in 2003, Foresite has grown from a three-employee firm to more than 40 strong, in three states.

Best training program: Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.
This Richmond, Va.-based firm is one of the few Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For that offers full reimbursement for 100 percent of design/technical course fees, and business course (such as MBA) fees, with no limit on the number of courses in a year or dollar amount spent in a year (may include grade restrictions). Delta offers a comprehensive set of training opportunities, and all employees are allowed and strongly encouraged to take three to five days of training per year.

Best collaborative environment: Foresite Group
A growing firm, Foresite works hard to create a collaborative, challenging, and flexible environment that fosters innovation and allows creativity to blossom for its employees. Foresite encourages a fun atmosphere, and to keep its employees connected, the firm launched a monthly employee newsletter in 2008 to better recognize outstanding service and also to educate all staff on the business strategy and the latest industry trends.

Best employee recognition program: Transpo Group
At Transpo, performing at a high-level, whether technically or managerially, will garner recognition from the company. The company will also recognize employees who are particularly innovative, or even altruistic. Transpo has gone so far as to task a “Recognition Committee,” which is rare among this year’s Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For. Incentives to perform include cash awards, event tickets, and even the possibility of a grant award.

Best recruiting and retention program: Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck, Inc.
It pays for employees at Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck, Inc., to refer candidates for hiring — the greatest source for new hires in 2008. The firm will compensate employees who make referrals when a candidate is interviewed, when a candidate is hired, and again at the candidate’s sixth-month review. And after bringing them in, the firm does a good job keeping employees on the team: Among its current management-level employees, the median tenure is 17 years; among non-management employees, the median tenure is eight years.


Firm-size rankings
Firms on the top 40 list range in size from 13 to 1,275 employees, a wide range indeed. While all of these firms share the same fundamental business model, firms of different sizes can offer their staff unique qualities, and gain advantages and disadvantages, dependent on their size. Therefore, we break out the top 40 to give firms a standing among like-size firms.

Top 20 Small Firms (less than 100 employees)
1. Transpo Group
2. AE2S
3. Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.
4. Calibre Engineering, Inc.
5. CRW Engineering Group, LLC
6. Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck, Inc.
7. Roth Hill Engineering Partners, LLC
8. Haley Nelson Associates
9. Nitsch Engineering
10. M.D. Wessler & Associates
11. J.L. Patterson & Associates, Inc.
12. Nichols Consulting Engineers
13. Franson Civil Engineers Inc.
14. Sam Schwartz Engineering
15. Entellus, Inc.
16. Shea, Carr & Jewell, Inc.
17. Blackburn Consulting
18. Chen and Associates
19. Foresite Group
20. Slater Hanifan Group, Inc.
 

Top 10 Mid-sized Firms (101-399 employees)
1. Traffic Planning and Design, Inc.
2. Fehr & Peers
3. Walter P Moore
4. Freese and Nichols, Inc.
5. Schnabel Engineering, Inc.
6. West Yost Associates
7. Mead & Hunt
8. BKF Engineers
9. Milone & MacBroom, Inc.
10. ABMB Engineers, Inc.
 

Top 3 Large Firms (400 or more employees)
1. Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
2. Barr Engineering Company
3. RW Armstrong
 


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 2010 entry information, sign up today for our Contact List. We’ll send you notice when the 2010 applications are posted. One important note to newcomers: Rest assured that the names of firms that apply but do not make the list will not be revealed. Hope to hear from you in 2010!


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