The People Person: Nicolette Villwok Works to Build Culture at E&A

Nicolette Villwok didn’t take a straight line to human resources. In fact, the Omaha native admits to being something of a searcher in college, changing majors several times at Wayne State College. 

“I knew I wanted to do something with business,” she said. “Having worked in customer service and retail and food services throughout high school and college, I did my research to find customer service is at the core of human resources.”

Customer service continues to be the lens through which Villwok views her responsibilities as director of human resources at civil engineering firm E & A Consulting Group. In daily tasks and special projects alike, she’s developed multiple ways for improving the work environment and the people within it. 

“As a company, we approach a lot of things on the level of look, bottom line, it comes down to respect,” she said. “Doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, we start from that baseline.

“From there, I see my role in human resources as serving the company and its employees, making sure they have what they need to be safe and productive, and giving them the tools and resources to do the job.” 

Versatile Expertise

Like many HR professionals, especially those in small to mid-sized companies, Villwok’s role tends to be a catch-all. In addition to traditional hiring and onboarding, she’s also had a hand in employee wellness, leadership coaching, and company communications, to name just a few projects. 

“You can certainly specialize in HR and a lot of people do,” she said. “You’ve heard of payroll specialists, benefits specialists and the like. I’ve always been a generalist and wear lots of hats. I like having that variety, kind of being flexible and versatile. I don’t think I could have it any other way; I’ve got to have the variety and fluidity to kind of bounce around.”

Villwok’s full professional repertoire was put into play during the pandemic and since, from shifting work locations to rethinking employee health and safety.

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“COVID presented a particular challenge for all HR people,” she said. “The whole industry was kind of scrambling to figure out how we can work and what we can do and how do we deal with this. Like many companies, we were trying to latch onto whatever webinar and whatever guidance we could get during that time to just figure out how we could navigate it.

“When things were changing so quickly it was a lot of ‘Can I come back to work?’ ‘Well, hold on. Let me look up what the new CDC changes are.’ The safety component is something we always took for granted and this has been so tricky both short-term and unfortunately for some, a lot longer.”

The Long Game

Getting back to “normal” has been no less challenging, especially in the engineering field where many firms are still trying to recoup from the downturn of 2008 and where recruitment is a constant struggle. 

“A big feeder for recruitment is our internship program,” she said. “The other thing that’s been successful is making sure we’re building a successful culture our people want to care about. 

“Since coming on board, I’ve also tried to get out into the community and share what engineering is and what careers are involved. We’re focusing on educating students in school, not just colleges and high schools, but middle schools. I’m even going to dabble in elementary schools this year, giving them exposure to the career. We have to start playing the long game by being part of the education process.”