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Diversity In Action

O'Brien & Gere employee-owners shape the direction of the company

The focus is on bringing in experienced techies, and mentoring qualified women and minorities to prepare them for potential moves into high-level roles

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Pete Koval

Peter R. Koval: "We just have to work harder to attract and retain talent."

Peter R. Koval, HR VP at O'Brien & Gere, notes that the engineering and project-delivery company became employee-owned in 1971. "Our people know they can come forward and help shape the direction of the company in an ownership/leadership role," he says.

The company has approximately 800 scientists, engineers, construction and operation folks, fairly sizable for this type of company. Besides its East Syracuse, NY HQ, it has offices in Blue Bell, PA; Albany, NY; Georgia, Michigan, Kentucky, California, Puerto Rico and more.

"Diversity in the workforce has always been a challenge," Koval says. "We just have to work harder to attract and retain talent in the engineering and scientific disciplines."

The company hopes to do this by forging a direct connection between the company and its board of directors through a taskforce chaired by Koval. The taskforce was established in 2004 with diversity as a key strategic mission. Its membership includes two members of the board: a senior officer in charge of one of O'Brien & Gere's major business units, and the company's legal council.

This linkage, Koval says, keeps the board actively involved in major company decisions on diversity.

Another way the company works to retain talent is by mentoring likely women and minorities. It's preparing them for potential moves into high- level technical and project management roles, especially in regional positions that are expected to see aggressive growth. "We need to promote people who are familiar with those markets or have experience in those locales, instead of moving in folks from other areas," Koval thinks.

O'Brien & Gere used to rely heavily on new grads for new hires, Koval says. "But we realized that their growth may not come fast enough, particularly in some service lines, market sectors or geographic locations." Accordingly, entry-level techies have dropped from some eighty percent of new hires to more like twenty percent.

Instead, "We are trying to bring in women and minorities at the middle and upper level to keep penetrating the glass ceiling. No matter what your gender, where you hail from, your origins or your ethnic background, your credibility and your ability to succeed in this industry are likely to be based on your experience."

O'Brien & Gere has had success recruiting former military personnel. The recruits, Koval remarks, include a retired military colonel brought in at the VP level to help lead the company's federal marketing effort.

The company is also looking to partner with M/WBEs. Having minority and woman partners helps increase connections and networking, Koval believes.

He also sees an evolution in the industry's approach to its workers. "We're going to see a workforce made up of core traditional employees, and then wrapped around them will be some that work seasonally, work from home, or maybe work from a different country on a project, then take a few months off. We're going to have a much bigger mix as we go forward, and dealing with their different value systems will be an exciting challenge."

So far, O'Brien & Gere offers their employees flextime, eldercare and child care benefits and a childcare center in East Syracuse HQ.

The company's community involvement includes encouraging and supporting employees who serve on the board of the Boys & Girls Club and similar organizations or take part in advisory boards at local colleges. Other employees help spread the word about engineering careers. "All our offices get requests from grade school through college for people to come in and talk about what an engineer does and what a kid needs to do to become one.

"We're glad to help," Koval says. "We've got to keep creating more role models."



Headquarters: East Syracuse, NY
Employees: 800
Revenues: $130 million in 2005
Business: An employee-owned engineering and project-delivery company providing environmental, water, capital and facilities solutions for industry, government, education and healthcare sectors and developers


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