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Boosting Business with Employee Training and Development

March 01, 2009 |

Despite a besieged AEC industry, DES Architects + Engineers of Redwood City, Calif., sees plenty of opportunity out there. The 37-year-old firm remains profitable and busy, but leaders recognize that, with their workload slightly reduced, now is the perfect time to grow the business by boosting their already substantial employee training and development programs.

“We wanted to take the opportunity to train more when we're not so overwhelmed with projects,” says Melanie Rogers, director of HR and a principal at the 110-person firm.

Training and development have always been integral to the firm, which launched a new program focused on educating staff in the basics of marketing and business development. Employees are assigned to one of four teams, which correspond to the firm's practice areas (commercial, life science, education, and healthcare), and then participate in creative, hands-on workshops on business development, networking, presentation skills, industry info, firm services, and DES company history. They even bring in outside experts to focus on etiquette and proper attire. Employees know where to stand in a room (facing the door so they see who's coming in), how to ask open-ended questions (and how to avoid conversation stoppers), and what constitutes proper dress. “Some people don't know which tie says 'confidence' and which says 'Las Vegas,'” says Rogers.

The result: Better interpersonal skills help employees feel more comfortable promoting DES. The firm's reduced workload also enables employees to attend more functions and seminars with the opportunity to land new clients and socialize with current ones. The program is working already, notes Rogers. She says that several existing clients released more work to the firm as a result of the networking efforts.

The firm's already substantial list of training and development programs includes:

An extensive onboarding/orientation program.An annual training budget of about $1,500 per employee for outside career development, an increase of about 25% over the previous year.In-house training on technical knowledge, quality improvement, cost and schedule control, and communication and client satisfaction. Results: Cost overruns have been reduced 70% during the last seven years.Training in Autodesk's Revit BIM program. Currently, 25% of technical staff are trained, with another 25% scheduled for 2009.Two technical seminars and lunch-and-learn programs per month; in 2008, the programs provided opportunities for employees to earn 36 learning units.Thirty employees are on track for licensing. DES awards a $1,000 bonus for employees earning licenses and pays all registration and renewal fees.

The same thinking that led firm leaders to increase training and development helped them see the importance of maintaining employee benefits and programs. Where many other AEC firms have scaled back or eliminated employee programs, DES protected theirs. In 2008, the firm spent $115,000 on company-sponsored events and recognition programs, and Rogers expects to spend a similar amount for 2009.

“You don't take things away when times get a little tough,” says Rogers. “We have a great group of people and we let them know that, and that's what gets us through these times, frankly.”

Among the firm's programs and benefits:

An annual bonus of one-week's pay.Profit-sharing contributions generally of 5% or more.A comprehensive fitness program that includes $25 a month for gym membership, community outreach, fitness challenges, healthy food options, and various rewards.WOW (What Outstanding Work) Award, including a $500 cash bonus for extraordinary work.Flex work schedule.$1,000 for five years of service up to $6,000 for 30 years.Use of three company Toyota Prius hybrids for firm business.Monthly seminars focusing on health and life issues, including financial fitness, nutrition, and stress relief.DESperados Toastmasters group.Numerous holiday parties and company events.Lactation room for new mothers.

DES has a low voluntary turnover rate, averaging 6.3% over the last three years, with senior managers logging an average 18 years of service and other employees an average 9.2 years. Some employees eligible for retirement were enticed to stay on with an offer of full benefits (as long as they work 32 hours a week), a flexible schedule, and a leadership role on their choice of projects. — Jay W. Schneider, Senior Editor


Business 101: Find yourself a nice garage…

DES Architects + Engineers—like Hewlett-Packard and Apple—got its start in a Northern California garage 37 years ago when founders, architect James Wetzel and engineer J. Don Mincey, joined forces. Nowadays, the firm's need for a garage has been superseded by the need for more bike racks. About 5% of DES employees regularly bike to work; another 17% take public transportation or carpool.
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