Q&A … With Renee Gartelos

The director of human resources for Burns & McDonnell recalls the years-long, unprecedented wave of hiring that made it the region’s biggest firm in engineering, design and construction services.


Q: Update us on the pace of hiring over the past few years: Has it leveled off, or are you all still on after-burners?
A: We’ve planned for 13 percent growth in 2023, so we’re still working toward bringing on that talent and making it happen. With the specific job disciplines and locations we have, it’s still going strong. I’m impressed with the year and the success we’ve had in finding the talent.

Q: Tell us about the driving forces for that hiring.
A: That growth has been really driven by market expansion across all  the business lines we serve, across all markets and all regions, domestically and internationally as well. Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, plus India, Canada, the UK and Mexico—the growth has been everywhere.

Q: Have you set new hiring targets for 2024?
A: Not yet, but that’s in the works.

Q: Walk us, if you would, through any of the strategic planning processes that might have been adjusted before the big push began a few years ago.
A: We’ve had significant growth over the course of my career here at Burns and McDonnell, so this wasn’t necessarily a new thing. In the last few years, as we’ve continued to grow, we’ve become pretty aggressive with our hiring targets. We all understood that from the beginning—the board of directors, the leadership, the hiring team—everyone coming together to approach that. We said there would be no growth for the sake of growth, but all were aligned and stayed true to integrity of our hiring process and selection process. We were committed to making sure we were getting the right people into the organization who could create long-term value with meaningful careers.

Q: So it was more a matter of scaling rather than creating new processes?
A: Right. When we think about putting all of that into action, aligning all the executive leaders and market leaders on their growth plans, what it really takes is that ongoing collaboration. It was not necessarily new to us, but we continued to get better at it and create that alignment. We attribute our hiring success to being aligned with common goals, and that comes from the top down. Our employee-owned business model and drive for our people to provide great solutions to our clients set the foundation for everyone in the organization prioritizing, identifying and recruiting the right people. Having that involvement and commitment from the leadership helps to really create that interest and engagement by everyone involved. It helped that we had very well-established recruitment strategies in place, but we did have to make adjustments to scale and find new ways to reach candidates.

Q: Are those adjustments closely held practices, or can you offer details?
A: Some of it is in-house, but the granular isn’t secretive. For a long time, we’ve had a strong early-careers recruitment program. We’ve invested in building a pipeline through our internship program and creating meaningful experiences for college students to come in and see what our company is like, what the industry is like, what a career at Burns & McDonnell would look like. Being able to have that program lead to converting those individuals to full-time employees down the road. So it’s very important to our success that we establish those relationships across college campuses, interacting and engaging with student to identify candidates early in the process.

Q: What about bringing on more experienced talent?
A: When we talk about casting a wider net, we activate our employee-owners to serve as recruiters themselves and refer great talent to our organization. As our employees speak to their industry peers or make great connections, those relationships are key drivers in demonstrating to others what kind of career they could build at Burns & McDonnell. We also capitalize on strong involvement in professional society and industry organizations. Plus, from a digital marketing perspective, we promote open job opportunities and share about our culture, benefits, and the innovation we’re delivering to the industry. Those tactics from a tech standpoint or engaging in more virtual events with candidates have been some of the ways we’ve adjusted our previous approach.

Q: As a top-tier employer in that space, you most likely had your pick of the litter with applicants, but even then, not every applicant is a one-to-one fit. How do you address alignment
A: Our focus is on making sure we are not lowering our standards and quality of candidates. Future employee-owners are important to us. Sometimes that takes a lot of patience on the part of hiring managers and the recruitment team to find the talent and basic qualifications of the job: Is this person going to be the right one to join Burns & McDonnell in that specific role? When it comes to talent, people traditionally have talked about finding the “culture fit.” But really, our goal should be to hire a “culture add.”

Q: Can you expand on that notion of changing the communication?
A: To shift the conversation to what this person is going to bring to this group with their unique perspective and experience, with that specific skill and background. How can they bring better solutions to the way we look at things? How are people going to make us better as an organization? Shifting the conversation that way often helps us identify and consider new potential candidates for the roles we have. We’re really good at coming up with solutions around here, so at times, we might change what we thought was a specific job or role, step back and say we can’t find the right person, so what other ways can we look at this? Maybe this job requires two different roles, or a completely different role to be an opportunity for an internal or a different external candidate. 

Q: Are those challenges amplified by concerns about diversity?
A: We recognize that finding diverse candidates, particularly in the STEM world, continues to be a challenge. There simply are not enough women and minorities in this space. So we think about that pipeline to get those candidates interested in STEM early on in their educational experience, all the way down to elementary school. We want them interested in STEM so that they will pursue that in their education. We’ve actually hired full-time employee-owners who participated in our STEM outreach events and programs as elementary, middle school and high school students. That’s a great feeling to know we helped inspire students to pursue a STEM career, and we hope we’ll have the chance to consider more students as future candidates some day.

Q: Moving on from recruitment, tell us about adjustments that have been made to on-boarding processes with so many new faces involved. 
A: We’ve always been very intentional about creating a good experience for individuals as they step into Burns & McDonnell and transition from being candidate to employee. We want to equip them for success when they start with us, and we’ve built a pretty strong foundation to make sure that happens.

Q: You then have to expand on that foundation with hiring at these levels, don’t you?
A: From a scaling perspective, we had to make some tweaks to that so everything was right in terms of who is arriving, and for the candidates themselves, to make sure we remained focused on having everything in place to create a great experience and have all the information they need at the right time. We’re growing not just in Kansas City, but in all of our locations, and we want that experience to be consistent for everyone. We shifted from in-person orientation for new hires to having virtual meetings with them, providing opportunities for subject-matter experts to speak to them directly, so that everyone hears the same message, has the same communication about accessing resources, receives the same training. We weave that all together to create consistent, positive experiences.

Q: Then there are external factors—inflation, for example, in the way it affects compensation structures, or rising interest rates that might affect your project pipeline after you’ve based your hiring strategy on certain revenue projections. How do those factor in?
A: We’re always benchmarking to make sure we’re staying competitive in the labor market, whether that’s from a compensation or benefits perspective. What we’ve seen over the course of the last couple of years with changes in the labor market, costs are escalating faster than in previous years, with inflation and the environment we’re in. But we’ve stayed true to our philosophies in regard to benefits and compensation. We believe what we have done is try to pay more attention to the real-time pulse of what’s happening with candidates or exits, getting additional data points there. We always did to a certain degree, but relying more on that to stay up to date on what’s happening is important to us. 

Q: Kansas City has long been a center of excellence in design/build, how does your growth change the appeal to candidates for the region overall? 
A: We’re very proud of Kansas City and love serving our community, and we regularly team up with organizations to help attract talent to the area. We partner with TeamKC, a strategic initiative of the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC) and other groups that recognize that together, we can make a bigger impact than any one of us can independently. I think we’ve seen the benefits of that partnership in bringing people to the area. For us, even if they don’t end up at Burns & McDonnell, we know it’s a good thing for Kansas City to bring that level of talent here. It solidifies the region as a place where the engineering, architecture and construction work force is a strong part of the community. We want to bring talent to Kansas City, and if it’s good for Kansas City, it’s good for Burns & McDonnell, too.