As the COVID-19 pandemic has industry firms retrenching and many eyeing layoffs, issues of diversity and inclusion in construction are in danger of once again being shoved to the back burner, despite recent visible attention to such issues spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding LGBTQ workplace protections.

But members of this Top 20 Under 40 group say the new realities of working through the pandemic have in fact intensified the need to promote and ensure diversity across the industry.

“A research study done by the Society of Women Engineers, in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley Center for Worklife Law, found that women and people of color are more likely to be interrupted during meetings, especially introverts,” notes Megan Schulze, a project manager at Dewberry in Denver. “I’m interested in how that’s been reflected in the technological version, related to Zoom meetings and so on. We might be losing valuable input and valuable information from those who tend to be interrupted.”

Several ENR young achievers say that recent progress in hiring more women into the industry can’t disguise the fact that there is still a long way to go.

“I think it’s super important that we just continue to broadcast the opportunities that are available in the construction industry and quash the old perception that it’s just a male profession,” says Ashley Little, senior project manager at Moss Construction in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “If you are technical, like to solve problems and enjoy being able to see your work come to life, it’s a great career.”

While diversity initiatives and programs are nothing new for construction, slow progress in boosting inclusion for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups can be frustrating for the younger generation coming up in the industry. “We can recruit all the people that we want into our industry, but if they get fed up within five years and leave, what’s the point?” asks Schulze.

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Many of these young leaders agree that a seat at the table isn’t enough—team members need to be engaged and given the space to shine.

“When we say diversity and inclusion, I think we should be talking more about inclusion first because diversity itself does not mean anything,” Menzer Pehlivan, a geotechnical engineer at Jacobs in Bellevue, Wash., emphasizes. “If there is no inclusion, if that person does not feel that he or she belongs or can actually succeed, then the person can’t feel actually welcomed.”

Hiring practices are often seen as the most direct way to increase diversity and inclusion in construction, with many of the 2020 group of achievers noting that the track record has improved during their time in the industry. But more effort is needed.

“Our [company’s] personal experience is that we were a predominately white male company 10 years ago, and when we really started to make efforts on this; we saw a lot more improvement on gender diversity than we have on race/nationality [categories],” says Michael Fish, president and CEO of Dellbrook | JKS in Quincy, Mass. His company has not only sought out more women and minorities for open positions, but also overhauled its recruiting metrics to draw from a wider pool of talent.

“With the standard protocols of recruiting, we were not getting the numbers we were looking for,” he says. “Overall I think our diversity and inclusion is heading in the right direction.” Greater Boston is “a very diverse place but it’s very segregated, it’s very parochial, it’s what neighborhood you are from,” says Fish. “And if you can’t admit that such systemic racism is real, you are just ignoring it.”

“If your company has a diverse workforce … does your leadership also represent that?”

– Pervez Iqbal, Principal Engineer and Highways Technical Leader, CHA Consulting Inc.

Hiring practices can also go beyond standard diversity metrics, attracting people who are not normally found in construction, according to Omotoye Omoniyi, lead superintendent at Gilbane Building Co.

“The most important diversity is that of the mind,” he says. “Consider if the [candidate] has the type of mind capable of doing [the job]—it’s all about the person.”

Chitwan Saluja, director of digital technology for Jacobs in New York City, points out that while construction has made much progress on the diversity front for women, making the industry a more attractive career choice to people of color and to those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities still presents challenges.

“We need to be inclusive of everyone,” she says, adding that recent Black Lives Matter protests have brought the issue of race front and center. “Our industry has stepped up the game from a gender standpoint, but for people of color we need to step up our game as well.”

Efforts to diversify the workforce also should not just be about hitting a theoretical quota target for women and minority representation, points out Pervez Iqbal, principal engineer and highways technical leader at CHA Consulting Inc., based in Atlanta. “If your company has a diverse workforce—let’s say a 20%-to-25% or 30% mix of minorities and women—does your leadership also represent that?”

Several other members of the T20U40 contingent pressed this point, noting that the need for more diversity in leadership is an ongoing industry issue.

“If you don’t see a C-suite that reflects the diversity of your company, your industry and you, you’re not really going to want to move forward in that kind of [environment],” says Schulze, adding it can be a major recruiting obstacle.

“Seeing more people in leadership, giving them more important roles, not just keeping them as field engineers,” is key, says Saluja, who also advocates for greater efforts to “provide training or whatever else is needed for mentorship.”

Cultivating talent within a diverse workforce takes decisive action from firm leaders, says Elizabeth Joyce, Arup senior mechanical engineer in Seattle. “I think [it’s about] giving people opportunities, promoting them and investigating your own hiring and promotional practices and compensation.”

Eric Solem, senior project manager at Exxel Pacific Inc. in Seattle, who helped develop the Culture of Care initiative for the Associated General Contractors state chapter while serving on its diversity and inclusion steering committee, says mentoring should be a priority.

“It is critical that each new employee be paired with the right mentor or coach to ensure that every individual is set up for success,” he says. Solem supports “having empathy for all,” but stresses that “daily action is critical in even the smallest task—asking someone how he or she is doing, lending a helping hand or offering to take the load off. The collective whole of all of society helping out will make a tremendous difference.”

While the T20U40 generally cite mentor programs as a useful tool to encourage career development, many also point to informal ways of promoting and encouraging employee careers that are still seen as reserved for the proverbial old boys’ network.

“It’s not just mentoring people, but sponsoring them—giving them recommendations, introductions to clients or to other people who might help them, and praising them in public,” says Joyce.