Stories

Connecting for Construction Careers

From the field to the office, DPR is focused on finding the next generation of builders.

The years of work Alex Buscher, a DPR Construction project manager, put in as an ACE Mentor came full circle when he got the news.

“One of my ACE mentees here in Houston got involved in DPR’s Build Up High School Internship program,” Buscher said. “He was a rock star and he did well on his project. Then, he got accepted to Washington University in St. Louis. That’s when it really hit home. I realized why I do this. I want to develop the next generation of builders.”

Buscher, recognized as a 2020 ENR/ACE Outstanding mentor, is one of the more visible people at DPR leading efforts to attract the builders of the future to not only DPR, but also to the construction industry itself.

Construction has been struggling with a labor shortage for years and a new report from the Associated Builders & Contractors estimates the industry must add 650,000 workers above normal hiring to keep pace with construction demand.

ACE Mentor students in Houston on an architectural tour. Many ACE participants start with an interest in architecture and, through the program, discover construction. Courtesy of Alex Buscher

Last fall, DPR led a consortium of contractors in offering support for the U.S. Department of Labor and its workforce development programs. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh encouraged that consortium to lead the effort, not waiting for government action. Even then, DPR was answering the call in a variety of ways to recruit more skilled workers into the trades or for roles in project management and support. Programs like ACE have been mainstays of many firms throughout the years, but it’s especially relevant in the current market.

“Some of the mentees over the years, when they think of building, they only think of engineers or architects,” said Scott Kubiszewski, a DPR EHS leader in the Northwest and an ACE Mentor. “We have to show the possibilities in construction and, honestly, we need more young mentors who recently joined the workforce and can relate especially well to students.”

Interestingly, ACE itself is evolving, taking elements of DPR’s Build Up High School Internship program and creating its own summer job experiences for high school students.

“Traditionally, we pushed for college internships,” said Diana Eidenshink, President of the ACE Mentor Program of America. “As the pandemic took hold, we realized a lot of our students didn’t have the same experience with ACE in a virtual environment and, at the same time, they were having trouble finding jobs. We called DPR to understand the Build Up program and have scaled some elements of it with our industry partners.”

Mason Maddox (far left) along with DPR project team members near Washington, DC. Mason started with DPR as part of the Build Up High School Internship Program. Courtesy of DPR Construction

ACE’s summer job experience program had 276 students in 2021 and is hoping to hit 400 this year.

“We’re competing for these students compared to other industries,” Eidenshink said. “When we can get them into the field and they see the technology we use, they get excited about the industry and change the way they think about it.”

Meanwhile, DPR’s Build Up program continues to expand. Since starting with four interns in 2017, the program has grown to 50 this year.

“We really want to show what the career path looks like,” said Diane Shelton, DPR’s community initiatives leader who spearheads the Build Up program. “A key thing is, we want to pay our Build Up interns well enough so that they don’t have to get a second job. We really want them to explore the career.”

Build Up is yielding tangible results. Mason Maddox, a graduating senior at the University of Maryland, first encountered construction via the Build Up program, which he was connected to via his local high school’s ACE program. This summer, he will be a full-time project engineer with DPR.

“Honestly, I first got involved with ACE because there was free pizza at every meeting,” Maddox said. “I had been interested in engineering and didn’t know much about construction. But I enjoyed ACE and my mentor, Ryan Audy [a DPR superintendent], mentioned DPR’s Build Up program and that I might want to apply.”

Participants in DPR’s apprenticeship program take part in a drawing class. Courtesy of DPR Construction

After being accepted, Maddox found himself on the site of the Howard County General Hospital Expansion & Renovation.

“I was hooked the first day,” Maddox said. “Everyone is so passionate about what they do and it’s incredible seeing people from different trades like concrete and electrical work together to collaborate. It’s always interesting seeing these different minds working together and even better to be a part of that work.”

Finding people like Maddox also reflects the realization that a larger pool of workers won’t come from focusing on the same pool of students. This has changed the way DPR interacts with colleges.

“Simply, we have to change the way we recruit to change the face of the company,” says Alison Tripp, who serves as DPR’s national recruiting leader.

A focused effort is on widening the net, especially in places the construction industry has often overlooked.

“We have dedicated recruiting champions helping build conversations at several historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions,” Tripp said. “It’s about making real connections on campus and long-term commitments. That’s going to take time, but it should result in a sustainably larger pool of talent.”

DPR’s Joe Garza, a DPR safety leader, presents to a class of DPR apprenticeship program participants in Austin, TX. Courtesy of DPR Construction

This effort also includes a focus on engaging with professional organizations serving traditionally-underrepresented groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. Additionally, DPR’s college recruiting team was recently part of the annual Associated Schools of Construction Competition in Reno, NV, which is always a recruiting hot spot.

“Things like ASC are great because there are students from parts of the country outside our footprint,” Tripp said, “and we get to see them under the pressure of problem-solving a construction problem inspired by the real world.”

College – and office-based jobs – aren’t for everyone, though. Plus, without the craft hands to put work in place, nothing gets built. The need for recruiting into the skilled trades is nothing short of existential for the construction industry.

In many markets, DPR’s union partners run robust apprenticeship programs and these workers make up a significant share of the firm’s 5,000 trade employees. But in open-shop markets where DPR operates, such as Texas and the Southeast, there’s a training gap.

Members of Oregon State University’s team at the 2022 ASC competition that won for their response to DPR’s construction problem. Courtesy of DPR Construction

“When training is aligned, you get benefits across your work,” said Chris Bell, DPR’s self-perform work leader in the Southeast. “When everyone is working from the same baseline, you’re going to have safer job sites.”

To address that and create a pipeline of people coming into the trades, DPR partnered with the National Center for Construction Education and Research to launch a 2- to 3-year apprenticeship program focused on the trades DPR self-performs including concrete and drywall. Workers who graduate will carry a certificate from NCCER that will enable them to obtain transferrable credentials that are recognized nationwide. The program has about 50 participants and is growing.

It’s not just DPR feeling the need. Major construction owners are pitching in in places where the need for craft workers is especially acute. DPR and Meta, for example, are partnered in Gallatin, TN with Meta’s “Hardhat in Hand” program. The paid program offers participants four weeks of classroom work before another four in the field learning a trade. Upon completion, these workers are integrated into the existing project team.

As Bell sees it though, it can really be just the beginning for workers entering the trades. After all, today’s apprentice could be the next foreman, superintendent or self-perform work leader.

“Society has been pushing college for 30 years,” Bell said. “Let’s make construction glamorous! We’re launching a foreman training program that focuses on developing these craft leaders. We’re showing workers the full chain toward leadership. There are plenty of steps in between the two, but it all starts with getting people in the fold so they can continue learning.”