For the past seven years, ENR’s 10 regional editions have recognized construction’s best and brightest in its Top Young Professionals competition. This year, ENR takes the competition to the national level.
More than 400 individuals from all sectors of the industry were entered into the regional competition; then, panels of judges picked up to 20 winners in each region. A new panel of judges reviewed the top-scoring regional selectees to pick a national Top 20 list that represents the pinnacle of leadership skills, community service and work ethic.
This diverse and multicultural group of contractors, engineers, entrepreneurs, futurists, architects and educators sat down with ENR to discuss key topics, including workforce development, technology and sustainability, providing insights into how today’s rising leaders view the future of the construction industry and ways to bridge the gap between the generations.
Also watch for online updates on Top 20 Under 40 regional submissions for 2018. Deadlines for ENR Southeast and ENR Southwest were October 23, All other regions, nominations are due NOVEMBER 13, 11:59pm.
CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAIL on nominations.
Related Article: Meet the Top 20 Under 40
Derek Hoffine: The lack of manpower with people overlooking opportunities within the trades is becoming somewhat of an epidemic for our industry. We really need to focus on high schools because the construction industry has various paths that lead up to management that are great opportunities for a lot of folks who can’t afford college when they graduate.
Enrique Elizondo: We need to be engaging a lot of these people a lot sooner. I’m talking about even at the elementary-school stage. For the longest time, construction work has been stigmatized as secondary or almost as a career of last resort. We’re far from that. I think what we can all benefit from is almost hitting a reset and allowing the current youth to understand that this is an actual, viable, well-paying career.
Joshua Broder: I think it’s really important that primary education focus on not so much about vocational skills but, specifically, learning and critical thinking skills. Businesses that employ tradespeople have to double their efforts to offer entry-level and advanced-level skills and vocational training, perhaps in partnership with community-college systems. It’s important that students arrive ready to work with the skills necessary to learn and to critically evaluate what’s being put in front of them.
Damaris Hollingsworth: The experienced workforce is leaving, retiring. There’s a lot of potential that is concealed, especially in communities of color. If you focus on these emerging communities by preparing, educating and informing them about the industry—and also leveraging [young people’s] built-in knowledge of technology into a more automated construction industry—that would combine to both increase the workforce and boost its efficiency.
Mani Golparvar-Fard: Young, ambitious millennials are joining the industry, wanting to learn and move up quickly through an organization. It’s really important for us to develop and implement focused solutions for each individual around career pathing, to make sure that they understand how they can contribute to their own development and demonstrate how advancement and progress can happen in their own careers.
Jennifer Marcy: One of the most important things is to plan for succession when you are given a new role or a new opportunity to build a project, program or service line. Our leadership team has to continue to grow, so we need that next generation to move up. This culture of always continually trying to replace yourself has been really helpful with that.
Tarelle Osborn: We invite anybody and everybody as employees to participate in the strategic planning of the company, and they have a stake in the game in terms of where it’s going, what market sectors we want to be a part of, what kinds of projects we want to work on and what kind of employees we want to hire—all those things play into it.
Tommy Linstroth: Young people don’t want a 9-to-5 job where they just sit and be quiet and are told what to do. They want to be able to provide input, be heard and put themselves in an opportunity to continuously grow, personally and professionally.
Jonathan Burgess: The younger workforce has shown an increasingly significant awareness of the broader impact of their individual and collective actions on the well-being of our communities and environment. The top companies of the future are putting those enlightened, younger leaders into positions to change not only what best practices they may offer for services, but how they operate their companies and organizations.
Noopur Jain: We are in a sweet middle spot right now in our careers. If we create that balance between the experience that 60-year-olds bring to the industry and the energy and the enthusiasm that the young generation is bringing, we can be that link between the two.
Afsaneh “Anna” Farokhi: It’s not a one-way relationship, especially if there is an age difference. The two generations can bring to the table a tremendous amount of experience, knowledge and value that adds to the community and the industry.
Heath Kearney: I started out my career in the U.S. Army, where mentoring others and being mentored is the main driver to having a successful mission. So the mentoring concept was not anything new to me when I came into the industry. No one wakes up and knows exactly how to do their job right away. You’re always going to have to learn from your mistakes, but a wiser person is going to learn from other people’s mistakes.
Melissa Countryman: Mentorship and development is really a partnership. Employees need to develop their own personal brand and be invested in their own personal growth as much as possible. It’s also the organization’s responsibility to look beyond just job responsibilities and have an individualized growth plan for their employees as well.
Andrew Liu: I’ve had different people mentoring at every stage of my career, and it really made all the difference in my successes or failures. My view is to treat it like networking. One [mentor] is not enough, and the more you put into each relationship, the more you’ll get back out of it. One of my proudest moments as a mentor was a former mentee calling me up a couple of years later and telling me all that he had achieved. I think that’s really the best reward: to have an ability to impact somebody else’s life and career.
Scott Armstrong: Great advice to young people would be to find people from all walks of life that can be mentors in different areas. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to find mentors in a lot of different avenues.
Darcy Schumacher: I also think it’s really important to point out mentors versus sponsors. A mentor helps you and gives you information. A sponsor is more of an advocate in your professional growth, showing that you’ve got the abilities and pushing for your support. I think it’s absolutely critical to find a good sponsor.
Laura Flannery Sachtleben: I’ve had the benefit of having some strong female mentors throughout my career. When you work in an industry that is still majority male, it’s beneficial as a young woman entering the workforce to have a female mentor. When I first joined, there was only one woman in the firm that was in a non-administrative position. She took me under her wing. I think it would have been a very different story had she not been there to make it apparent that there is no ceiling.
Osborn: We need to prove the value statement of diversity—not just ask for handouts, not just whine-and-complain. We need to prove there’s a benefit for everyone in the community to get on board in how a more diverse team is beneficial. I hear from our clients that when we have a more diverse team, solutions are more “out of the box,” creative, bold and brave.
Jain: Being a woman, a person of color and an immigrant, this country has given me a lot. I’m very fortunate to have had the mentors I needed to excel in my career. But if you go to a boardroom or a meeting room, you don’t see the diversity we would like to see. As we get into leadership roles, we see less and less. We have to be very careful that we promote the entire diverse workforce at all levels. Creating that awareness and being mindful of it, not just talking about it, will help.
Linstroth: It’s obviously hugely important. If you get a bunch of like-minded, like-looking people in one room, you’ll probably move in one direction, not necessarily always the right one. You want a variety of experiences and opinions because there are very few easy decisions in our professional or personal lives that can be made in a silo or vacuum. You’ll have a better product, better workflow and a better organization.
Broder: Despite the social advances around us, construction and design still tend to be more chauvinist, homophobic and racist than some other industries. To maximize the available workforce and deal with staffing shortages, which are absolutely critical, we need to seek out all talent that is available.
Hollingsworth: There has to be a sensitivity to and acceptance of differences. So, when you hire diversity, the diversity’s going to stay. People work for people more than they work for a company. If we can figure out how to make everybody feel welcome, they will be comfortable enough to stay.
Sachtleben: In school, I remember being told, ‘You’re going to have to choose: Do you want to be a great architect or do you want to have a family?’ I decided early to have both. Where we’ve evolved with technology and flexibility in the workplace has really made that possible—and not just for women. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Farokhi: Diversity brings to a team, project and company as a whole different people with different backgrounds, experiences and knowledge who work together to achieve the same goal. Diversity breeds creativity and innovation. All of a sudden there is a bond that takes place. Everyone gets into this ‘Let’s get it done’ kind of mentality. The experience is priceless.
Elizondo: Projects are more effective when we bring diversity in. If we’re close-minded and stick to the same script, nothing actually happens and we don’t grow. I actually am proud when I see women out in the field. Engaging that diverse background makes us a lot stronger as an industry. That’s the key to growth.
Countryman: Our clients are leaps and bounds ahead of the construction industry in diversity. They feel more comfortable when they’re working with folks that are from diverse backgrounds because it makes them think we’re understanding of their ideas.
Burgess: We were, I think, the first in Florida to voluntarily achieve certification as a JUST Organization, a platform that looks at social equity in a corporate organization and how employees are treated. We found it’s a really good metric to reevaluate how we’re doing in terms of equity, diversity and how we’re investing in our employees. We’d encourage other industry companies to follow suit and take a hard look at how to achieve diversity through JUST metrics.
Liu: There are huge opportunities for things such as vehicle and infrastructure communication. How do we adapt our infrastructure to be able to handle tomorrow’s technology?
However, while we want to meet these new demands and new technologies and help foster innovation instead of impede it, as we have done traditionally, we need to remember that we, as civil engineers, still have public safety and fiduciary duties. These types of innovations are going to transform the industry, but they’re not going to happen without civil professionals who can help to guide it along the way.
Kearney: I do linear projects for the oil and natural-gas industry. Drone technology is really going to make an impact on our industry, especially with the opposition we’re receiving to a lot of our projects. With drones, you have the capability to cover a lot of areas and have high-quality video taken that can definitively prove what was done and what was not done, real time. I think that’s going to be a game-changer.
Elizondo: Using the drone technology takes us to levels that we otherwise aren’t able to look at and then think outside the box. With 3D technology and BIM, we can actually build and construct these buildings way before we actually put a shovel in the ground.
Linstroth: In buildings now, you can track real-time data and be able to adjust how buildings perform instantaneously. We’re able to 3D-model buildings and really expand upon them in the design process, which is streamlining the construction process.
Burgess: Modeling the building, whether it’s for energy performance or for daylight performance, can really help digitally inform what the long-term payback’s going to be for investments in energy and efficiency, circadian lighting systems and things like that. Certainly, other kinds of technology tools that are offered in the marketplace now can really launch that decision-making process beyond just first-cost impact and really thinking about life-cycle costs and so on.
Hollingsworth: Digital technology could actually combine and bring together all disciplines, stake-holders, community voices, inputs from developers, economic interest and goals by having that one platform that brings us all together to communicate and keep ourselves on track. People resist change and resist technology, for whatever reason, until technology finds its way to prove itself valuable.
Jain: What I see—maybe not in 10 years, but maybe in 20 years—is how to create more jobs for our industry because, as we innovate and technology takes over, we will have less need for people, to be honest. If all the machines are doing the construction, how do we keep the workforce? We have to think about that.
Liu: At the end of the day, we all like to solve problems. So, really fostering a culture of innovation and willingness to try something new, even though we haven’t done so before, is pretty imperative.
Countryman: Over the past two decades, a lot of industries have advanced and become less dependent on labor. The construction industry has not made those same advances—we’re still largely dependent on labor to perform the work. We really have to focus on training and education, and it needs to start, in my opinion, at the secondary education level—that’s middle school—then continue to high school and to the trade colleges.
Antonya Williams: I think a lot about ACE mentorship. I’ve been involved for eight years, and we are seeing a lot of change in how savvy the younger generation is and their constant connection with technology. We focus a lot on exposure and really listening to this younger generation. Our industry has changed so much on the technology side and with the workforce shortage. The more we can think differently about streamlining things and creating opportunities for this next generation is really huge for us and a big focus for me, personally, with my role in ACE.
Farokhi: The construction industry is undergoing a rapid digital transformation. For construction engineering companies, it’s important to continue moving forward with that technology. What I want to challenge is that innovation is not necessarily just a technology change. Innovation can be as basic as you walking to the jobsite and asking the question, why do things get done this way? If the answer is, “Well, we’ve been doing this for decades,” then maybe there’s an opportunity to improve that and be innovative about where you can be efficient in terms of costs and schedules. Technology is just one portion of innovation. But, also, just finding a way of doing things in a more effective, efficient way and not just because we’ve done that forever. Find a way that we can improve the process.
Sachtleben: We’re seeing automation in all sorts of things that are taking over some jobs, and we’re going to see that more and more in the construction industry. I think it’s necessary to prepare those who are entering the workforce to be able to be more flexible, use creative thinking skills and start to do things differently than we’ve done them in the past.
Marcy: We quantify flood risk and other natural hazard risk. There’s a lot of innovation happening in that world right now. How do we show flood risk, how can we precisely and accurately portray it, and how do people perceive that information? How do people understand risk, how do people understand what they’re looking at and know what to do? It’s not enough to give them information about how high the water’s going to get. You need to couple it with actionable information—“Here’s what you can do about it.” I see this helping the industry move forward because, eventually, it all leads to construction and development.
Joanna Slominski: What is interesting is the pace with which this change is occurring. It’s been unbelievable in the past 10 years, and what’s going to be coming in the next 10 years will be something we’re not yet prepared for. But it’s also exciting because change means that there’s growth and lots of opportunity.
Osborn: In terms of using technology and just being bold and brave, sometimes the more diverse team will allow that. How projects are delivered now, the softer skills are so important in terms of being able to communicate to the public and understanding all the different stakeholders’ interests.
Marcy: After Harvey, Irma and Maria, we still want to build the same thing that we had before those disasters happened, and it’s only going to happen again. We need to build back safer and stronger and make different decisions—and that’s hard and not a comfortable space for communities, especially when they’re looking for tax revenue. To find ways to allow communities to build back safer and stronger—and keep their tax base—is really important. We’re headed toward a national flood-insurance program that will continue to be in debt. We’re really facing some tough times.
Armstrong: What does sustainable architecture mean, and how do we really push the envelope of what can be done? We’ve seen Tesla and others out there who are game-changers. As leading design professionals, we should be trying to design new spaces that respond to the need for change and push us all forward.
Burgess: As an environmentally minded professional in the construction industry, I think we have a long way to go to become truly sustainable. We’re evaluating projects in terms of doing slightly less bad through rating systems, like LEED. But we really need to be looking at restorative and regenerative ideas that are transformative. There is resistance on some more aggressive strategies for environmental health and how to weave them into a project’s economic bottom line. How can we create conversations to marry these?
It’s been interesting to watch the conversations around resiliency. They kind of parallel the ones about sustainability a few years back. People are starting to really think in terms of adaption against sea-level rise and climate-change events. Natural disasters are really telling about how much more resilient we need to be.
Linstroth: Having a short-term mind-set has had decades and decades of impact. How do we help break down those barriers? Soon, we’re going to have to be talking about adaptation and resiliency versus mitigation in terms of climate change. That’s a discussion we hope to not have to have before we can figure this out.
We’re constantly striving to do better. Even a code-compliant building today is a lot more efficient than probably the first LEED-certified building in the year 2000, just through the natural growth of code.
Certainly, I see a lot of worry and a lot of flux with what’s coming out of Washington, but you still have drivers at state, local and even the private-sector levels. We’re getting new opportunities to prove how green design can be done. But to have it on as broad of a scale and as quick as we need is more of a challenge. We need to make sustainable design accessible to everybody and commonplace, rather than an add-on.
Countryman: We are changing the footprint of the earth with buildings. They’re where people’s lives happen—it’s the hospital where someone’s getting help or the school where a student may find a cure for cancer. We have a responsibility to our communities and Mother Earth.
Dave Lubitz: The increasing commoditization of our engineering services is a big challenge. It’s all of our responsibility to educate clients and enhance the reputation of our industry. Being a relatively new company owner, it’s also the risk that keeps me up—doing things we’re still figuring out.
Slominski: Besides a young infant at home, what keeps me up is the workforce. If we can’t find a way to increase the number of people coming into the craft, we have to get even more creative on what we do and how we do it. It’s not just about getting a four-year degree … it’s about finding a craft that you can earn a decent living at. How do you communicate that to students and to their parents?
Hoffine: Very concerning and frustrating to me as an industry professional is that we can’t figure out a path to improve our infrastructure. It seems like you’re just kicking the can down the road, and that’s something I’m not prepared to do. What’s our environment going to look like 10 years and 20 years from now?
Liu: One of the toughest challenges is, how do we finance infrastructure projects that the world needs? Innovative financing approaches and private-sector involvement are a lot more difficult than the actual technical problems we’re trying to solve.
Jain: Our risk-taking ability concerns me. How do we keep society safe and take risks to innovate and make the best use of resources?
Hollingsworth: Thinking about how I can be relevant and actually do what I vowed to do as a professional architect. We work 10- and 12-hour days, yet we’re not meeting the needs of the people that need us the most. Also, I wish I could change the way construction is financed and the way developments are evaluated; these are really big, big deal-breakers for a lot of projects. There are so many hurdles, most people just give up.
Golparvar-Fard: Safety. Losing lives on the jobsite really bothers me. We’re adopting and adapting solutions from outside of the industry, as opposed to spending time to properly understand these problems and develop solutions that will really get to the core of the problem and establish a return on investment for companies. I’ve been working toward creating solutions and processes that can hopefully address these challenges.
Schumacher: Understanding and maintaining client and owner expectations and how that affects project costs and scope creep can be challenging, as are things that are being added to contract language now that we aren’t able to defend or legally insure.
Williams: What keeps me up is whether we’re changing old mentalities of “keeping your head down” and whether people are happy and feel heard.
Sachtleben: There’s some big evolution still to come in architecture. Staying ahead of that keeps me up.
Elizondo: What doesn’t keep me up? That’s probably the better question. What did I miss and what am I not catching when I’m not out there?