Just as we shouldn't put all our 401(k) eggs in one basket, consulting firms that serve the public and private markets fare best during slowdowns. Despite the stimulus package and other federal aid, though, the suddenness and severity of this latest economic downturn is testing firms that specialize in government infrastructure work.

Though the pace has slowed, the results of our annual survey of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms show that larger firms with greater resources are looking for smaller entities that will plug gaps in geographic or specialty coverage.

Over the last year, to name just two:

  • Kleinfelder picked up SEA Consultants to increase access to state and local energy and transportation projects in New England.
  • Global player Arcadis acquired Malcolm-Pirnie for expertise in water infrastructure.
  • Firms continue to look for such synergies. Three-quarters of respondents to a recent ZweigWhite survey say their strategic plans include a merger and/or acquisition within the next five years.

    What's this mean for you?

    Well, many of you will spend your career moving from the public to private sectors and back again, or visa versa. Do your due diligence on a firm's plans for achieving stated goals and mission. If merger rumors abound, how will the target company contribute? For insight into organizational culture, visit www.glassdoor.com for anonymous employee reviews of 84,000 companies, many of which appear in the list that begins on page 32.

    If you're on the public side, look for firms that aren't expanding just to stanch hemorrhaging balance sheets. Keep your ear to the ground to see what colleagues are saying about the morale of their consultants. You don't want your project bogged down by internal snafus caused by an inept transition.

    And if you're concerned about a firm's long-term viability, don't bail just yet. Instead, watch how management handles this downturn.

    Founded in 1976 by a surveyor and engineer, David and Evans Associates took on telecommunications, transportation, and infrastructure work during the 1980s. When the telecommunications market tanked, it expanded into water and transit. Now, instead of focusing on “energy,” it's specifically providing “carbon-reduction” designs that help clients earn LEED credits by choosing project components based on how much manufacturing that component contributed to air pollution and how much energy was required. The firm isn't diversifying just for the heck of it .

    That's the kind of organization we all want to work for.

    ? Stephanie Johnston
    Editor in Chief