Building Workforce by Building Culture

Voices across the AEC industry agree that there is no way out of the labor shortage without true cultures of diversity and inclusion.

Jorge Quezada, Vice President for People & Culture with Granite Construction, sees three paradoxes when he starts talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. The first is that our brains are wired to find similarities, but being human is to be different from one another, so we need also appreciate the differences in the workplace.

DPR Construction craft worker carrying a steel interior wall stud.

“The second paradox,” Quezada said, “is that none of us created the systemic issues we face. But we all have a responsibility to do something about it.”

That leads to the third paradox: everyone needs to support DEI initiatives to create more inclusive work environments at their respective companies and the construction industry; everyone also should be able to challenge why certain steps are being taken to gain greater clarity on DEI.

“To me, we need to focus on our people the same ways we focus on supply chain,” Quezada said. “Too often, we take an accounting perspective: ask yourself ‘where do people fall into P&L?’ We treat people as an expense. If we do that, we will only pull the expense levers when it comes to our employees.”

From a supply chain perspective, construction’s skilled labor workforce continues to face a shortage. Last year, the Associated Builders & Contractors found that the industry would need 650,000 additional workers on top of its normal pace of hiring to meet demands. As lawmakers from both parties heralded the passage of The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, McKinsey noted that the bill would put additional pressure on the existing workforce and the need to recruit more into the skilled trades. As advanced manufacturing seems poised to ramp up in the United States the need to recruit more workers is only increasing, with a wider group of employers hiring from a pool of talent that isn’t growing fast enough.

A team of five workers smiling on a jobsite.
Point solutions are not gaining traction

Unified efforts across different stakeholder groups are needed

“Across the industry, everyone has their preferred company solutions, but we need to work together to move the industry,” said Victor Sanvido, Senior Vice President at Southland. He sees the barriers to entry as a high wall to clear. “How many people in our industry actually encourage their kids to get into the industry? If we can’t recommend it to our families, how can we expect others to?”

Fortunately, leaders from across the construction industry – customers, designers, owners and more – all see the scope of the problem and know that it’s going to take action from every corner of the industry, if not society as a whole, to change the trend. Moreover, if the industry cannot tackle DEI, they said, any effort will likely fall short.

“A lot of the efforts we see in the industry amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Alexander Kohnen, Vice President for Facilities Development and Management at Arizona State University. “We need to bring more and more people in. Ten internships aren’t enough. We need 10,000. One problem we have in our industry, though, is the stigma around the trades and the drive to put people into college.”

These students face the stigma, especially that their parents don’t want them to go into construction. Our class has started to change that perception.

Martin Fischer

Kumagai Professor and Senior Fellow, Stanford University

Martin Fischer, Kumagai Professor in the School of Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University has seen the stigma firsthand.

“Since 2017, we’ve had a workforce VDC program for high schools and unions that has reached more than 700 people,” he said. “These students face the stigma, especially that their parents don’t want them to go into construction. Our class has started to change that perception.”

Mike Madsen, who recently retired from his post as President & CEO of Honeywell Aerospace, sees a similar challenge: “The hardest positions to fill are entry-level technician roles. We must do a better job of letting kids know that there are great careers to be had without a four-year degree.”

“For our technicians, we need to start earlier, especially in underserved communities,” Madsen continued. “Often, those are communities that have few, if any, guidance counselors; but we keep looking for others to solve this problem and we need be the ones to drive it. If we, the industry, reach out to schools, build relationships with the educators, and help connect the dots with the students, we can make a tremendous difference that will benefit all the parties involved.”

For a generation, American society has focused almost exclusively on putting kids on a college track, from well-off communities to underserved communities. While there is no shortage of great “first-in-the-family-to-attend-college” stories, not everyone fits that mold.

Two workers  wearing PPE on a jobsite.
Potential solutions: closer than people think

Many might start within AEC organizations themselves

“In the face of the shortage of people coming into facilities construction and maintenance, I tend to turn to whether we can grow our own,” said Banner Health Vice President for Facility Services Mark Barkenbush. “It’s a bit unconventional, but we’ve started to explore training needs for our existing staff that can create new career paths.”

Other industries may have models to implement.

“On our campus, Starbucks had a pattern where baristas would leave shortly after becoming successful,” Kohnen said. “So, they started paying tuition for baristas, who now generally stay on all four years at ASU. Maybe we can get people to come into the trades with an offer to pay for college five years down the road? Imagine if we scaled that across the industry.”

In such a model, some might even opt to stay in the trades or, at the least, continue careers in other construction roles. With collective college loan debt in the United States around $1.75 trillion dollars, any avenue that helps keep students out of debt may be a strong recruiting tool. And money in their pockets can go a long way, too.

“I think we probably have to realize that a $5/hour increase in wages alone could help shift things,” said Avi Halpert, Vice President of Corporate Real Estate for United Therapeutics. “Showing a bit more love to folks wearing toolbelts could make a real difference.”

The need for DEI – specifically true inclusivity – is critical

Recruiting from the deepest pool of talent means changing the way work has been done

“We check in with women who left the workforce after having kids,” said John Bruno, Vice President for Global Real Estate at Workday. “It’s been great way to bring great people who left for personal reasons back in.”

Indeed, looking at flexible work schedules, part-time plans show promise, even in the seemingly inflexible world of construction job sites.

If you have two working parents, in most cases, the mom is still the person doing the school pickups and caregiving. Fundamentally, the way we operate doesn’t mesh with that schedule and those pressures.

Gretchen Kinsella

“The way the construction industry runs its projects is not conducive to a school schedule,” said Gretchen Kinsella, DPR’s Arizona business unit leader. “If you have two working parents, in most cases, the mom is still the person doing the school pickups and caregiving. Fundamentally, the way we operate doesn’t mesh with that schedule and those pressures. We’re missing 50% of the workforce and, I think, if we were more flexible with start times, we’d get a lot more people interested.”

Is solving that flexibility issue as simple as inviting the conversation? Perhaps.

“I don’t care when people are on site. I care about schedule, scope and budget,” Kohnen said. “I’d be willing to entertain a discussion about extending schedule to help be more flexible for teams, especially if I could get more cost certainty out of it.”

Sam Huckaby, Chief Development Officer, EMEA for Vantage Data Centers concurs: “As an owner I couldn't care less when people work on site. I think, at some point in residential areas, it matters when the work happens. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to be adaptable and agile and flexibility can be part of that.”

“To me, you cannot be looked down upon because you start at an untraditional time,” said DPR CEO George Pfeffer. “A lot of the workforce has long commutes. There are several issues which need more flexibility including parental duties. While we cannot have limitless flexibility, there is room for more than the industry has today.”

If this is true, then it’s the latest case of the construction and design industries needing to break century-old patterns of work and adapt. If, even before COVID-19, 96% of American workers said they needed more flexibility, it’s no wonder the construction industry lags since the pandemic, in an environment where flexibility is becoming the norm. For caregiving women and for workers who cannot afford to live in the city centers where much construction work takes place (and, therefore have long commutes), construction’s traditional hours can be a significant barrier to entry.

Other groups that have been put at a disadvantage because of traditional patterns need attention, as well.

Dos compañeros de equipo teniendo una conversación

“A class I teach at Stanford is connected with Howard University,” Fischer said. “As part of that, we went to Howard for classes there and then the Howard students came to Stanford for a week. Now, these are two well-respected and well-connected schools, so we were able to set many of the students at Stanford and Howard up for internship interviews. What was eye-opening was how the Stanford students were full of confidence and the Howard students were more doubtful. Yes, we opened a funnel, but that’s not all the work to be done. Sometimes we make assumptions about perceived limits, but seeing it changes your perspective.”

While owners and contractors all seem to agree that a lot of progress has been made, including events like Construction Inclusion Week, which have started long-overdue conversations across the industry, the cultural hard work is just beginning.

“There was an instance where one of my PMs was yelling and swearing at a contractor’s project engineer,” Huckaby recalled. “As soon as I had heard about it, I sent that person home and then went to the contractor’s trailer to apologize. We have to set the standard that this isn’t how we’re going to do business. And we have to tell people they’re not going to advance if they’re not building the culture.”

Owners may be the lever the industry needs to take the next step

Customer pressures open the door to inclusivity

“In the public sector, if you are not achieving DEI, you’re done,” Kohnen said, noting that ASU is likely to add more robust DEI requirements and questions to its construction RFP process. “We will not put the ASU brand next to you. People who are better at it will get more business. Our students demand it and our board is ready to engage on it.”

“This is definitely a case where owners are moving the ball,” said SmithGroup Managing Partner Troy Thompson. “We cannot submit an RFQ without showing what we’re doing on the DEI front. We had to lead owners up the hill on sustainability efforts; this is the opposite.”

That’s not to say contractors don’t have levers they can pull, as well. While recruiting is the obvious way to diversity, inclusion requires creating environments where everyone can thrive. Without inclusion, it will be hard to retain all the new people who have been recruited.

We had to change the normal way people moved into that track. Our general superintendents got together and developed a field engineer program. Instead of it being the traditional career path where people had to raise their hands, this was an invite program.

Jody Quinton

“In my time at DPR, in my region, we’d had one female superintendent,” said Jody Quinton, a member of DPR’s Leadership team. “We had to change the normal way people moved into that track. Our general superintendents got together and developed a field engineer program. Instead of it being the traditional career path where people had to raise their hands, this was an invite program. They paired every participant with a mentor and, in the past three years, we’ve had three women move from field engineer roles and are now assistant superintendents. We had to develop something that drew women into this path.”

And culture changes that can foster inclusion and make construction more attractive may even take literal infrastructure.

“Let’s take something really tangible,” Pfeffer said. “We all have control over our jobsites and we’ve said there’s a psychological safety issue in construction. I think we should have detailed discussions around the availability and maintenance of things like the women’s and men’s restroom facilities on site. Those are some of the worst spaces for psychological safety and, across the industry, we just let it happen. What if we committed to saying we’re going to find a cleaner, safer space for our sites? There is always something we can do.”

A DPR employee holding concrete tools.

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