The Unique Nature of the Geotechnical Engineering Industry: A Conversation with John Hollander, CPO of GeoStabilization International

by Mike Whillock on in Blog, Geotechnical Engineering, Leadership

Recruiting the right person for your company is always a challenge. In a niche industry like geotechnology engineering, that challenge is only amplified. To learn more, we spoke to John Hollander, Chief People Officer at GeoStabilization International and a man who I have worked with for over a decade across multiple industries.

Mike Whillock: It’s great to be able to chat to you, John, and thank you for taking the time out of your very busy day for this. Can you talk about your current job as Chief People Officer at GeoStabilization International and how you got here?

John Hollander: Absolutely. I’ve spent a long time in the talent management, talent development, and HR field across 11 different industries, figuring out how you acquire, onboard, develop, retain, and transition talent to drive organizational capabilities and performance. As the CPO at GeoStabilization International, my role is to find, onboard, develop, and retain the best people in the industry to execute our mission, which is to solve geotechnical problems to create a safe environment.

Mike Whillock: How do you tackle the challenge of recruiting in what is really such a niche field?

John Hollander: People tend to follow career paths of people that they know, and not many people will know geotechnical engineers, so they generally have envisioned going into a different field. We have to step back and be very thoughtful about who we are trying to recruit. We define the need, the market, and how we take our value proposition out to the marketplace.

We start at the college level, looking at those that have a strong geotechnical foundation, but then also target colleges that produce candidates that are a good culture fit. The people that do well at GeoStabilization International tend to come from a more rural environment – off a farm, ranch, or agricultural environment. The people that succeed with us also tend to want a more hands-on approach to engineering. Some people in engineering want to do the engineering side and move on to the next project, and some people want to see a project to the end to see what they’ve built. Those are the type of people we’re looking for.

Mike Whillock: Are there other traits you’re looking for when you’re trying to recruit?

John Hollander: Yes, we want practical problem solvers. We give people a lot of autonomy, so the people we look for tend to be more mature. We’re not out just to provide the solution we have – we’ll even recommend solutions we don’t have, and we want ethical people that can do that for our clients. Our top value is to do the right thing for our clients.  We solve complex problems in a very value-driven way, so we look for altruistic people who are great team players.

Mike Whillock: GSI is competing for talent with other fields that people, as you mentioned, might have more so envisioned themselves going into. How does GeoStabilization International overcome that?

John Hollander: It really comes down to the value proposition. It starts with what people care about – the impact they can have. In geotechnical engineering, that impact is very, very large. What we do saves lives – we are the 911 first responders for geotechnical issues. We work 24/7, 365 days a year to solve problems when they occur. When I-70 is closed and people cannot get up and down the corridor, we’re there to solve that issue.

The next trait is people that aren’t looking for a typical day. They don’t have an office. Instead, they have a truck and boots, and they go out into the field. Then it’s about how they work with their co-workers. At the end of the day, I want to work with some interesting people that I get along with and have a lot of fun with. GSI isn’t just three letters on a hard hat – it’s about working with people that have pride, integrity, a hard-working attitude, capabilities and skill, and that have their brothers’ and sisters’ backs.

Finally, we want people who are very interested in learning. We have some very well-defined career and skills paths so that people are always learning and growing. Our values aren’t just a piece of paper on a wall but something we live, and we want people who want to live them too. We have an upside-down pyramid whereby if a leader needs to get out in the field and help a project, we do that.

Mike Whillock: Let’s talk about geotechnical engineering more generally now. You mentioned earlier that you’ve worked across 11 industries – how different is geotechnical engineering?

John Hollander: Well, in many other industries, you’re providing a pretty clear service. You’re trying to create an outstanding guest experience or a product where you meet a need and then build a strategy around that based on the competitive environment.

Geotechnology is different. It’s not linear because you’re trying to solve a problem. People continue to expand and grow and live in new parts of the world. We originally lived in places that were easy and flat and the terrain was simple to deal with. Today, we are now trying to put infrastructure in challenging places, and it’s ever changing.

So, the geotechnical industry is significantly different from any other industry out there because it’s not just an immediate solution. You’re going to see what the environment is and solve for a geotechnical issue that supports some kind of infrastructure.

Mike Whillock: You mentioned building in new, challenging areas. Is that the biggest challenge in geotechnical engineering right now and what other challenges come with it?

John Hollander: There’s really two things: building infrastructure that is going to enable growth and maintaining what has already been built. We have a very significant aging infrastructure challenge. If you just look at the power distribution environment, it’s 60-80 years old and it’s beginning to fail, which we saw recently in Texas and the Midwest. There’s a highway structure that was built during the Eisenhower administration in the ‘50s that has been patchworked together over time. Then there’s the dam and bridge environment where there are thousands upon thousands of bridges that are in significant disrepair.

Part of that is the issue of global warming too. When you have extreme drought and extreme weather conditions, that creates challenges for the infrastructure. We’ve seen communities in Alaska where the sea level is rising to their homes, as well as the erosion in Michigan and Ohio Valley. If you don’t update, maintain, and invest in the infrastructure, you can have severe challenges.

Mike Whillock: How do geotechnical companies overcome those challenges? Is it leveraging the latest technology, is it thinking outside the box?

John Hollander: In some cases, it is complete repair, but it doesn’t always have to be. You can use the environment and the solutions in place today to solve issues. A lot of the departments of transportation and country administrators do that on a day-by-day basis.

We’ve all seen cracks in road that are paved over two or three times. The issue is that the roadway will fail eventually, so it’s incumbent on the geotechnical industry to identify where those failures are and work with the infrastructure leaders – counties, states, national departments of transportation – to solve those issues.

A lot of those issues are solved by tools and solutions that go back 30-40 years, but there are also solutions we have like the Soil Nail Launcher, which is patented technology that can fix it in a much quicker, shorter period that also saves the taxpayer dollars.

Mike Whillock: I’d be remiss not to ask you about Covid-19 and GeoStabilization International’s response to that too. How have you dealt with that challenge?

John Hollander: It was actually a year ago that I called our CEO and said “I’m in Las Vegas, I’m at the West Coast Conference basketball tournament and the Pac-12 just got canceled and everyone is leaving here. We probably need to start thinking about our mobilization plan.”

Within the week, we started building a plan. Thankfully, 95% of the people we have are out in the field and able to socially distance and operate in a very safe environment. Many of our customers were shellshocked at first. We continued to support them, but we had to change a lot of our protocols. Many of our customers couldn’t go out and do site visits with us, and it’s very important to be able to see a geological fault or issue, so we actually got everybody on our engineering team certified on drones, and we were able to go out on behalf of the clients to do site surveys and reviews virtually. We then took the client through the problem, designed and built the engineering solution for them, proposed it virtually, and then they could get it approved to get the issue solved.

Our ability to adapt and use the things already place got us through the past year. We also tried to find ways to ensure we weren’t laying off a third of our workforce like others have. For example, our CEO still isn’t being paid and hasn’t been for three months. It’s really been about thinking how we can jump in and take the brunt between each other while remaining safe. We have a good dozen stories of clients that said we couldn’t come on-site because they’ve shut everything down, so we’ve shown them our pandemic response plan, and they’ve responded by telling us we can come on-site and asking if they can take our response plan and mirror what we’re doing.

Mike Whillock: That’s all you can ask for, right? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Finally, I have to ask, what do you see as the future of geotechnical engineering?

John Hollander: There’s only going to be more roads, pipelines, or bridges going through geotechnical risks or hazards. The more we grow as a nation, the more geotechnical risks and mitigation will be required. Every year, we see new, more challenging environments. From a company perspective, we’ve experienced 20% growth per year since the inception of GSI, and we believe it will continue to do that over time.

Mike Whillock: Let’s hope it continues to go that way! John, thanks for taking the time to talk to me – it’s always a pleasure.

John Hollander: Absolutely, any time – thank you, Mike.

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