Jim Lawler started the latest chapter of his three-decade human resources career in late 2014 when he joined Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International as senior vice president of HR.
Lawler previously served as chief HR officer at TASC for four years and designed that company’s HR organization, compensation and benefits programs and HR leadership team.
ExecutiveBiz recently spoke to Lawler for this in-depth conversation on his first year at ICF, recruiting trends the company watches in the GovCon space and his view on how job candidates have the advantage in today’s workforce construction environment.
ExecutiveBiz: What have you primarily focused on since you joined ICF?
Jim Lawler: I've tried to follow that old maxim “Do no harm.“ My primary focus for the first nine months was understanding the company.
I've taken that extended period of time to understand the ways in which ICF is unique-and there are many ways. For example, every company says that they're “mission-focused.“ But people here glow when they talk about the work they do for our clients.
You can see why they feel that way about their work, as you understand the incredible work we do in improving the environment, in making affordable energy available, in doing great things in healthcare, and in many other areas that make the world better.
Over the last three months I've focused on making sure we have the right approach to compensation and benefits, to attracting talent and to integrating acquisitions. I've particularly focused on understanding our employment value proposition — why people want to work for us, and the market dynamics we must navigate to attract and retain talent.
All of this gets complicated by the fact that we've grown from a $200 million company to well over $1 billion in less than 10 years. We are still in the process of becoming fully formed and we are constantly evolving. This concretely translates into knowing how to preserve our energy, culture and entrepreneurialism while scaling up and putting process, structure and best practices in place where it's appropriate to do so.
ExecutiveBiz: What is the most prominent trend in GovCon recruiting right now?
Jim Lawler: In the last 18 months, it has become clear that there has been a profound shift from a buyer's market where companies can choose from any number of qualified candidates to a seller's market where candidates can choose from any number of relatively desirable companies. The balance has shifted to candidates and it’s their world now.
ExecutiveBiz: How is ICF responding to that trend?
Jim Lawler: We are applying three broad thrusts. First is educating our managers to help them understand that the balance has shifted. That means that when you do a job interview, not only do you have to get to know the candidate, you have to understand the interests of the candidate in order to do some selling. The interview experience and offer process with the candidate has to be well executed, positive and quick.
Quite frankly, if a company isn't available for interviews, and isn't able to quickly convert from interview to decision to offer, then it is probably going to be beaten to the punch by someone else who is doing a better job on those fronts.
Second is making it an easier overall experience for candidates such as doing as many interviews as possible by Skype instead of in person and making sure that all candidate interaction tools are mobile-friendly, whether it is our career site or applications via phones.
The third aspect is ensuring we have a clear and distinctive employee value proposition – defining what we are “˜selling' that sets us apart from the other companies out there.
ExecutiveBiz: Where can industry and government collaborate to find future talent?
Jim Lawler: A particular challenge for government and federal contractors is that there aren't many jobs which are well-structured for college hires. In the federal contracting process, the work to be done and the staffing requirements in the RFP are typically structured in such a way that contractors are asked to provide primarily mid-level and senior-level talent. Almost all of the jobs actually include lower level tasks as component parts of the overall job.
We could harvest a lot of young talent if we could collaborate with government to redesign those jobs and carve out some of the lower end work to create more positions suitable for hires straight out of college. There are people that would love to work for the government. There are young people who are patriotic and like the mission.
But generally, you don't see that many jobs structured in a way that fits college hires. We need to sit down with every government project manager and work through the design of their contractor workforces to create more opportunities at the college entry level.
ExecutiveBiz: For those aspiring to join the GovCon workforce, what steps can they take to get noticed and get their foot in the door?
Jim Lawler: There is obviously the need for the right kind of education-the work that's been done to encourage an educational focus on science, technology, and engineering has been beneficial. There are some internships available in federal contractors that help to position candidates well. All of us contractors would like to do more with interns and it would help to have the entry level college slots to place candidates in permanent roles.
But the real and bigger point is flipping the question around to ask: what steps can GovCon stakeholders take to get noticed by future workers? The risk is that the commercial sector looks increasingly more attractive to young new workers than the federal contractor space.
We must pay attention to our work cultures and the degree to which they are transparent and allow people to have a voice to the senior level, even if they are new hires. We have to highlight the work that we do for the good of the country and world. We've got to highlight a culture where people can involve themselves in corporate social responsibility activities.
We've got to have flexible schedules and the ability to work from home, which is now not even distinctive anymore. We have to be able to provide career growth and make people feel part of a good healthy organization. If we focus on that question, we'll get more bang for the buck than asking in what ways can candidates get noticed by us. It's their market now.