Engineering Corporate Citizenship


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VAA received a 2019 Wellness by Design award for excellence in worksite wellness at a ceremony hosted by Hennepin County Public Health in November. As a silver-level award recipient, VAA was recognized for making “employee health a priority through creative and effective wellness initiatives.”

Wellness by Design awards are presented to Hennepin County employers that demonstrate accomplishments in management support, wellness infrastructure, communication, and programming directed at improving employee health. VAA joins over 70 organizations that were recognized with awards for workplace wellness this year.

“VAA is honored to be recognized by Hennepin County for our commitment to creating a healthy workplace for our employees,” says VAA HR Generalist Cheri Axel, PHR, SHRM-CP. “Receiving the award affirms VAA’s dedication to fostering an environment that promotes diverse wellness programs that meet a wide range of personal health needs while developing a workplace culture focused on celebrating and improving the quality of life for all employees.”

Each organization’s wellness program is assessed in 10 categories ranging from senior-level support to policies and employee engagement. This is the fifth time VAA has accepted a Wellness by Design award, demonstrating the continued growth of its social, mental, physical and financial well-being programs.

Wellness offerings at VAA include a structured mentoring program, charitable PTO, education reimbursement, profit-sharing, teambuilding outings, an onsite fitness room, quarterly healthy snacks, book club, and annual ping pong and basketball tournaments. The firm is also committed to community wellbeing; employees regularly participate in a variety of community-based events from Habitat for Humanity projects to hosting an annual Community Caring Campaign that raised over $50,000 for local nonprofits in 2019.

New additions to the wellness program this year include freshbenies, a heath concierge service offering a holistic suite of options to provide employees and their families with cost-effective healthcare services.

Worksite wellness programs are of value to both the employee and employer. They can improve employee performance, increase engagement, lower healthcare costs, and build community. Effective programs create a culture of health that affects all employees. To learn more, visit the Wellness by Design website.


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Shawn Shahriar, PhD, PE, Principal / Sr. Structural Engineer, is our final “25 & Up” 2019 Club member.  Shawn’s influence on new employees, veteran engineers and VAA’s ag and industrial projects comes from the same place – an intense drive to help and the heart to do what it takes to make it happen. A phenomenal fixture in VAA’s structural engineering services, his technical skill with seismic design, forensic engineering and many areas in between are significant and appreciated. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
As a Project Engineer at Kiewit (formerly T.E. Ibberson Company) in 1992-1993, I was managing two major agribusiness projects where overflow drafting was subcontracted to VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates): Gene Haldorson (former VAA Partner and employee for 37 years who retired in 2018) and Bernie Jansen (former VAA Partner and current Sr. Project Manager). They impressed me and I felt we had good chemistry working together. Later in 1994 I contacted Gene about employment opportunities when I was looking for a change in my career. He introduced me to Dick Van Sickle, PE, and Reg Silverthorne, PE – the rest is history.  

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
“I think, therefore I am.”  -- Rene Descartes

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
As a Partner from 1998-2018, I am proud to have helped build VAA’s reputation as a highly specialized and reliable design-oriented engineering firm capable of supporting clients’ engineering needs, particularly on one-off, complex agri-business and industrial projects. 

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?

Successful: When I started at VAA in 1994 it was a 17-person operation. To see the firm steadily grow in revenue and to 140+ employees is testament to the dedication of our Partners and competence of our work force.

Organized: It takes coordination and organization to execute the best service possible to our clients and internally to our staff.  Through the years, we’ve stepped up and delivered success through our strong engineering performance and project organization, not to mention in-house accomplishments such as office moves / expansions, maintaining continuous operations around the 2016 office flood, healthcare benefit challenges, etc.

Niche: A specialized firm with unique knowledge and competency that distinguishes it from its competitors.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
At its roots VAA was a structural engineering firm. Today, we are a multi-discipline practice offering a full suite of services.  

Where is the most beautiful and/or enjoyable place you have visited?Zihuantanejo, Mexico. This city found fame as the destination at the end of the movie, Shawshank Redemption. It is inviting, peaceful, friendly and authentic Mexico.  I can count on two hands the times I have returned for vacation – truly breathtaking!

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Our second featured “25 & Up” club member in 2019 is Structural Engineer, Jeff Ferkinhoff, PE. Reliable and steady are a few words to describe Jeff’s M.O. He takes pride in thoroughly understanding what VAA’s agribusiness clients need and providing designs that translate into the field. Often seen in the office with a massive red mug of tea, he is a valued resource for engineering and the latest stats on local sport teams. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
I applied to structural engineering firms within reasonable driving distance of where I lived. After I submitted my written resume, I followed up with a phone call that resulted in an interview.

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
Listen to clients so you can understand what the issues are in the field and make sure the design is buildable for the guy/gal in the field. On paper things fit like a glove, but in the field that is not often the case, so it helps to have some ‘wiggle room’ in the design.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
Supporting one of VAA’s longest client relationships has been my greatest accomplishment. It has been rewarding to know my efforts on the team have helped this design-build contractor be satisfied with the firm for many years.

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?

Generous
VAA often shows generosity towards employees and the community we live and work in. For the employees – substantial profit sharing, HSA contributions and educational opportunities are a few examples. For the community - the annual Community Caring Campaign and supporting employee participation in various outreach activities like Feed My Starving Children or Habitat for Humanity.

Relationships Whether it be with existing clients, new clients or company employees, relationships are important to VAA. The firm strives to deepen relationships to better serve the client and/or employee. Examples include the Egret Party (annual client event); the company holiday party which includes spouses and/or significant others; and past summer family picnics.

Growth When I first joined VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates), the company services were limited to structural and civil engineering, some architectural design and equipment layouts. The company has since expanded in all the previously mentioned disciplines and added electrical, mechanical and process engineering to its service offerings.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
The extent of services VAA provides clients and quicker turnaround time on projects. 

What was your favorite toy growing up?
Pretty much any kind of ball - whiffle balls, basketballs, footballs, baseballs along with accessories like bats / gloves. This became a big influence for me as I coached my sons and their friends in a variety of sports as they were growing up.

Jeff will be retiring at the end of 2019. We appreciate Jeff’s many years of dedication and wish him some well-deserved relaxation and enjoyment in his retirement.

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Interested in the stories from our other 25 & Up Club members? Click on a name to read another Q&A session.


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Terry Mahr is our first 2019 Club member. His memorable laugh and soft-spoken approach are valued by Terry’s teammates, his commercial / retail clients and the new technicians and designers he welcomes to VAA.

With a genuine interest to propel the firm forward, Terry is a steadfast resource for the firm’s recruiting efforts and a guide to others wanting to take their career to the next level. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates) posted a position on the job board at Dunwoody College of Technology – a piece of paper on a cork board ad. One of my instructors at the time, Jim Roehl, brought the posting to me and said, “I think this is the one for you.” He sent me off with a foundation plan and foundation details to meet Gene Haldorson (former VAA Partner and employee for 37 years who retired in 2018) of VAA. Twenty-five years later, here I am.

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
When I began to put drawings together more independently, Dave Johnson, PE, VAA Associate / Sr. Structural Engineer shared a simple, but very useful tidbit. “When developing drawings, put yourself in the contractor’s shoes and think about what information he / she is going to need to build the building.” This line has been used countless times over the years with the technicians I’ve had the privilege to train.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
Being a member of the 25 & Up Club is my greatest accomplishment. To be with a company this long is a pretty great feeling. The stability to me and my family is very important. I appreciate Gene Haldorson taking a chance on me many years ago and am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had since my very first day at VAA.

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?
Dedication, service, growth. VAA is dedicated to its clients and employees. We strive to meet the needs of clients and approach each project as though it could be the last - a project is a project no matter how small. Through our service approach, VAA has established long-term relationships with contractors, owners and architects that began 40 years ago and continue to grow.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
I would have to say the biggest difference is the impact of technology in the industry. The pen plotter and fax machines are long gone!

What is your favorite sports team and why?
Born in Wisconsin, it’s hard for me to choose, but it can depend on the season.

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Interested in the stories from our other 25 & Up Club members? Click on a name to read another Q&A session.


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Ghosts, ghouls and even a Greek goddess roamed the halls at VAA’s Plymouth office on Halloween. In addition to a costume contest, our Wellness and Outreach Committee hosted a Chili Cookoff and Dessert Bakeoff for employees to show off their culinary creations.

With nearly 20 costume-clad participants in the running, it was a tight race for the 2019 costume contest. Employees also engaged in a friendly competition for the Golden Spoon and Golden Whisk awards. For a $5 donation to Fur-Ever Home Rescue, employees received an all-you-can-eat pass for chili and desserts and a vote in selecting the top three winners in both categories.