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Passion, Proficiency, Purpose: The Pillars of Elizabeth Whalen’s Career

Elizabeth Whalen is Hill International’s Vice President for Training and Development. A well-known HR superstar at Hill, Elizabeth is in charge of a wide range of HR tools and programming, including Hill University, the goFLUENT language learning program, the Partners of Purpose employee review program, Learning & Development (L&D) Coffee Breaks, HR Happy ½ Hours, and the recent Women’s History Month global contests, among many others. Though she wears many hats, Elizabeth handles each of her responsibilities with great care, and everyone who works with her praises Elizabeth’s positive attitude and commitment to her work.

In summing up her motivations, Elizabeth notes that passion for service is at the root. She says: “I believe in service and treat others as I would like to be treated. Every morning I ask myself, ‘What good can I do today?’ and at the end of the day, I reflect on what good I did. If I held the door for someone, said good morning, helped direct someone, answered a question, or helped someone expand their mind, then I accomplished my goal.” This passion for service is right at home in the employee-centered world of HR and, combined with the proficiency Elizabeth has developed over a nearly 30-year HR career, it fuels the purpose that drives Elizabeth’s outstanding performance. Her leadership and the HR tools and programing she oversees help Hill recruit and develop talent, enabling company growth and success. For her accomplishments, Elizabeth was promoted to her current role of Vice President in early 2022.

Foundations: Dance, Recruiting, Rock & Roll, and… Florida?

A diverse range of professional and personal experiences have made Elizabeth the exceptional professional she is today. After winning a scholarship at 9 and studying dance for 5 years in NY, at 14 years old, Elizabeth started working as a part-time dance instructor. She says dance is where her love of learning and teaching was born. Continuing to work as a part-time dance teacher, Elizabeth started working full time at 16, while attending both high school and vocational school. Elizbeth enrolled in business school at 19, where she developed an interest in sales and psychology. Not to be bogged down by coursework alone, she also landed a role as an administrative assistant for an IT department at Rapidforms.

“The background in teaching, business administration, IT, marketing, sales, and psychology, combined with the fact that I always wanted to help others, made HR a logical choice after graduation,” she says. “A pharmaceutical company, AmeriSource, gave me a break into HR, and there, I discovered that I loved it and thrived in the role.” She took on more and more responsibilities, attended training whenever it was available, read books, asked questions, and learned everything she could about HR. Within a few months Elizabeth went full-time.

After several years with Amerisource, Elizabeth found her niche in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, where she has spent most of her career.  “The AEC industry makes sense to me,” she explains. “It is logical and creative—how can anyone not love that? In this industry, I’ve had the opportunity to know and learn from some of the most creative and intelligent people one could hope to know. The average day feels like working in a room with Meatloaf, Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, and Journey—you can’t help but come out as a better person from this environment.”

As she made her way in the AEC industry, Elizabeth was always ready to take on new responsibilities. She recruited employees, conducted new employee orientations, negotiated salaries, administered benefits and company policies, resolved payroll disputes, developed recruiting standards and boilerplate, oversaw summer internship programs, ran company-wide HR programming, and provided data tracking and reporting. With her IT background, Elizabeth even helped maintain her some of her employers’ websites.

Elizabeth says she learned the most in her career from time spent working in Florida, away from her home in New Jersey. “There is something about leaving all that is familiar to you that naturally expands your mind,” she explains. This meant becoming familiar with environmental engineering restrictions unique to Florida and identifying the best way to staff positions in accordance with those restrictions. She also had to rethink her recruiting strategy for attracting countrywide talent to Florida. Most of all, she had to adjust to living and working far from home. Despite the challenges, her ever-increasing proficiency and unflagging passion for her work helped Elizabeth thrive.

Coming Home: Application and Growth at Hill

“Hill brought me home,” Elizabeth says. Florida was a transformative experience for Elizabeth, but after a few years, she began looking for opportunities to return to her family and friends in New Jersey. Noticing an available position at Hill, she submitted an application. Not content to wait on a response, however, Elizabeth reached out directly to Hill’s president and a few days later was flying home for an interview.

That was late in 2007. Now, after more than 15 years, Elizabeth’s mark on Hill is indelible. She started putting all of the skills she had developed during her career to work on day one, during her onboarding. “I noticed our new-hire orientation could be better, so I got started creating a program,” she says. “I pitched it to leadership and HR began implementing it almost immediately.” From orientation, Elizabeth continued to grow, helping Hill’s former claims organization with safety training, and serving as the HR lead for the development of Hill’s SharePoint site.

Around 2012, Elizabeth noticed silos of compliance, professional development, and safety training. She realized that Hill could better facilitate the internal transfer of that knowledge. After researching platforms that would work for Hill and delivering about 100 presentations, Elizabeth officially unveiled Hill University to the company. “Hill University is an accessible, comprehensive one-stop shop for all of our company’s compliance, training, certification, and general L&D needs,” she says. “Powered by Percipio, it’s a tool that empowers employees to take the next steps in their careers with external and internal resources and best practices. It can be used for learning languages, via the goFLUENT program. It can help you get certified for that promotion you’re after—all with holistic, multi-media, and clearly mapped learning paths. Many lessons are available in local languages, and most Hill University content can be accessed through a smartphone application.”

In addition to benefitting Hill employees, Hill University is an asset for Hill’s clients as well. For example, Elizabeth uses Hill University to provide customized “Team Success” training to the Metro I-5 North County team in Los Angeles, CA. That includes customized learning units, Metro’s own Hill University Channel, and full access to all of Hill University’s resources. For other teams, Elizabeth has aligned L&D materials to their clients’ key performance indicators. “We can customize Hill University to meet any client’s needs,” adds Elizabeth. “It can provide easy access to credentials, certification, and professional development opportunities that clients’ in-house staff may not otherwise have. Or it can help ensure that Hill staff are trained in exactly the way our clients need. Clients around the world use Hill University, directly or indirectly, and more requests come in every day.”

Not content with Hill University’s current success, Elizabeth continues to collaborate with her colleagues in and out of HR to enhance the platform. Recent improvements include the addition of Arabic, Korean, and Japanese to goFLUENT; the integration of Hill policies and associated documents to all compliance courses; and a safety library with more than 600 courses based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration Department of Transportation, and National Fire Protection Association standards. According to Elizabeth, employees will soon be able to take a skills assessment based on their chosen areas of interest. Based on their scores, Hill University will provide a customized learning plan to take users to the next level of proficiency. Elizabeth is also working to expand Hill University’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs, as well as its material on sustainability and wellness. And according to Elizabeth, these are just some of many good things to come.

Just like Hill University, Elizabeth has continued to grow during her tenure at Hill. Most recently she helped institute the L&D Coffee Breaks, HR Happy ½ Hours, and company-wide campaigns like the Women’s History Month contents. These programs helped Hill professionals engage with their coworkers during COVID-19. They also helped Hill employees get to know their colleagues from around the world. In February, for example, the L&D Coffee Break brought Hill employees to Qatar in a virtual session that merged culture with learning.

Helping Others Kindle Passion, Build Proficiency, & Find Purpose

“At Hill, purpose is what drives me every day,” says Elizabeth. “Purpose sits at the intersection of passion and what you are good at.” Partially because of Elizabeth’s purpose, there are many opportunities for other Hill employees to kindle passions and develop proficiencies in their own work. In addition to helping Hill teams win and execute projects, Hill University and other HR programing provide a variety of opportunities for personal and professional growth. This ranges from finding the most direct path to becoming a certified construction manager to learning about Qatari culture with colleagues.

“A strong L&D program is a cornerstone of a great company,” concludes Elizabeth. “It is paramount for hiring, engaging, and retaining talent and then finally sharing with that knowledge with others. I take great pride in helping facilitate the acquisition of that knowledge across our company. I’m also proud of the results that we deliver. Because of the tools we have, Hill gives employees opportunities that they may not get at other AEC firms. If you work hard, are on a continuous improvement journey, and want to make a difference, this is the company for you!”

To talk HR or L&D with Elizabeth, reach out to [email protected]. For more information about Hill’s available positions, visit https://www.hillintl.com/careers/.