Best Firms, Walter P Moore: Three-tiered Plan Keeps Skilled Employees

The 75-year-old engineering and consulting firm's mentoring, training, and generous benefits are some of the best in the AEC industry, helping it attract new graduates and retain its existing cadre of skilled engineers and consultants.

May 01, 2006 |

A decade ago, the Houston-based engineering and consulting firm Walter P Moore was experiencing a voluntary annual turnover rate of a staggering 18%. Long-term retention was a major concern of management.

Reacting quickly, the firm introduced management and supervisory training and coaching programs. Within a year annual turn-over dropped to 8%. Then in 1999, the firm introduced team mentoring. As a result of these and other efforts, the firm's voluntary turnover rate remains stable at about 8% a year, well below the industry average.

Walter P Moore's turnaround on turnover is just one reason why the editors of Building Design & Construction have named it a "Best AEC Firm To Work For" in the inaugural edition of that competition. In addition, the firm has established a robust portfolio of employee-focused programs that include extensive mentoring, training, and generous benefits.

1. Mentoring: A team effort

Walter P Moore's mentoring program targets new graduate engineers, helping them make the transition from the academic world to the work world. Rather than the more typical approach of one mentor to one protégé, at Walter P Moore each new hire is assigned a team of mentors.

The thinking behind having multiple mentors is threefold.

Accessibility is the chief reason. "If your mentor is someone who's out in the field all the time, you're not going to get much value out of that relationship," says Leigh Mires, manager of organizational development and training.

The second reason, says Mires, is to reduce the stress on mentors by spreading the responsibility over several individuals.

The third reason is to introduce protégés to different disciplines. One mentor is always in the same technical discipline as the protégé, while other mentors will be in disciplines outside the protégé's area of interest. (The firm's disciplines include civil engineering, parking consulting, research and development, structural diagnostics, structural engineering, traffic engineering, and transportation engineering.)

Not all of Walter P Moore's 335 employees qualify as mentor material. The firm only selects mentors with three years' experience or less because they want the mentor to be close enough to the college-to-work transition that they appreciate the protégé's situation.

How effective is the mentoring program? The protégé's experience and job satisfaction are evaluated at three- and six-month intervals and, in 2005, job satisfaction was rated at 8.8 (on a 10-point scale) at the three-month interval and at 8.7 at the six-month interval.

"Being accessible and available was the biggest plus from my mentors," said one new hire in an anonymous employee survey. "The ability to ask questions about any and all areas of work and non-work issues was really helpful."

2. Training: Investing wisely

Walter P Moore annually invests 2.5% of net revenue on training and career development programs, which comes out to approximately $3,200 per employee.

The generous training and development budget funds two full-time professionals who design and develop courses of both a technical (70%) and nontechnical (30%) nature. The latter cover topics such as presentation skills, time management, consulting skills, and project management.

Teaching responsibilities are mostly handled in-house, with 95% of all classes taught by the firm's principals, including Raymond F. Messer, the firm's president and chairman, who teaches risk management and liability.

Each of the firm's nine offices handles its own technical courses, with an average 10–12 courses per month firm-wide; most nontechnical training is held at the firm's Houston headquarters.

The firm also provides license exam review training and twice annually conducts its FastStart program, a 30-hour technical training orientation for new graduates that covers design topics and structural modeling.

For employees who seek qualified training from outside sources, Walter P Moore reimburses up to $1,500 per employee per year.

3. Generous benefits

Starting last January, employees working a part-time, 20-hour schedule qualified for full benefits. The impetus for this new program, according to Jan Sweeney, Walter P Moore's manager of human resources, was to retain female employees who were leaving the firm to start or care for their families, to provide for the firm's interns working throughout the school year, and to retain skilled older employees contemplating retirement.

Employees who choose retirement before age 65 can remain on the company's insurance program until Medicare and Medicaid programs kick in at 65.

"We're not required to offer it, and it's really an unusual benefit," says Sweeney, "but it's a really good alternative for people who have enough money to retire early." Sweeney says that most of the firm's few retirees do take advantage of the plan.

Walter P Moore wondered how it ranked in terms of compensation, benefits, and profit sharing, so in 2005, the executive compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer & Partners was hired to conduct a third-party survey. The results showed that the firm ranked above average in benefits and was generous with profit sharing compared to the rest of the industry.

Other key benefits the firm offers are flexible work hours and a work-life balance program that includes financial, legal, and bereavement counseling, as well as travel assistance.

And, of course, there are the firm's social events. Each office has an activities committee with its own budget. Some offices hold ice cream socials while others host chili cook-offs and family picnics. Others lean toward sponsoring sports events: The Houston office, for example, is wrapping up its basketball and softball season and is gearing up for its bowling league.

It's been almost 10 years since the firm targeted employee turnover, and HR manager Sweeney says she's been busy acknowledging a lot of 10-year anniversaries. (Ten-year veterans get a crystal paperweight and a bonus check.) "We have a lot of people who have been here between five and 10 years," she says. "In an industry where the average tenure is somewhere between two and three years, that's a pretty big deal to us."

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