When it comes to infusing talent into construction, outreach and community involvement continue to be crucial, especially since most people outside the industry don’t understand what engineers, architects and contractors do, says Megan L. Crutcher, principal at Odyssey Engineering Group in Houston.
She says outsiders still seem to envision engineers as nerds crunching numbers behind a desk all day wearing glasses, high-water pants and suspenders. “I don’t think any of us have actually done that,” she says.
The consensus among this year’s T20U40 is the critical mission to debunk stereotypes and create excitement about the industry as early as kindergarten.
“You have to start at the beginning, promoting our industry and all the different kinds of work that goes into it—not just the architects, engineers and project managers, but also the site supervisors, electricians, plumbing contractors and all the others who come together to build the infrastructure that we need,” says William S. Haas, smart energy market sector director for AECOM in Chicago.
Megan Schulze, a Dewberry project manager in Denver, says she didn’t consider trade school or a craft career despite her father being a carpenter and her grandfather an electrician.
“The way they talked about being smart—you go to college,” says Schulze, her family’s first-generation university graduate. “That’s what you do, and that’s how you make money and are successful. But I’m now managing projects in construction and just really digging working with electricians. But then I see their prevailing wage and they’re making more money than I am. What the heck was I doing?”
Schulze wishes that people in craft trade careers had came to her high school and shared their experiences. “That would have been really attractive for me,” she says.
The ever-expanding virtual component of higher education due to COVID-19 also concerns the 2020 group of professionals, as they see gaps appearing in incoming talent.
“If you’re going to send me somebody who says they’re a construction manager and they haven’t set foot on a job site—no thank you,” says Crutcher, who suggests online partnerships with contractors, where students complete a type of internship that gives them field experience.
“I’m seeing a gap in experience because [students] have been pushed through school that they’ve got to get it done in four years or two years—I don’t think that’s right,” Crutcher explains. “You need to go to school at whatever your speed is, and it’s important for you to get the knowledge. It needs to be complete.”
Jennifer Snape, owner and managing partner of Batture LLC in New Orleans, advocates giving credit for internships. As education is being reimagined, she sees potential for the “school first” dynamic to change. “Schooling remotely may give students the flexibility to hold a part-time internship at the same time, which could be a great supplement to their education,” Snape says.
One crucial way to transfer knowledge—mentoring—has taken a back seat now that most office interactions are taking place via video conferencing. “Zoom calls are not necessarily the same as wandering into someone’s office,” notes Aaron Yohnke, vice president and district manager at PCL Construction in Glendale, Calif.
Kim Scott, vice president of business development and marketing for Blach Construction in San Jose, Calif., says that in settling into a mid-pandemic routine, she has time to “pick up a phone and talk to someone and help them through something, or just have those conversations that aren’t scheduled and support people. It’s important for us to make sure that we have that free time in our schedules so that we’re all available to do that.”
Crutcher notes that one way to retain and grow newly graduated professionals is to create links between college organizations and professional associations.
“I could look up and go to the meeting, but here I am, a young engineer who knows absolutely nobody at this meeting, and I’m just showing up. I don’t care what you tell any 22-year-old—that’s not comfortable,” she says. “Professional organizations that tie to colleges and trade schools could find a better way to connect the dots between graduate or college level and professional.”
Seeking out professional organizations and encouraging involvement in a larger network is a tremendous asset to those seeking to grow careers, notes Adrienne Nelson, architect and associate at Pickard Chilton in New Haven, Conn. “You can get that professional growth through the networks and that becomes ever more important,” she says.
With resources being forced on line out of necessity, those tools are more readily accessible, Nelson points out. “Many programs that I would have loved to have attended were in core work hours,” she says. “It wasn’t feasible for me to step out of a client meeting to attend a networking function.”
The architect explains that “now many of those programs have been pushed online, so I could quickly fit one in here or there. It’s been amazing to actually participate in a broader network and meet other people.”
She adds, “it’s so important to put the emphasis on that for young people who are coming into the profession to know there is a broader network or community that they could use as a resource.”
Sometimes growth requires changing companies regularly to avoid getting pigeon-holed, says Snape.
“An engineer with lots of potential may not get to show it in that situation and may need to leave that firm to expand the breadth of their experience,” she says. “Alternatively, at a smaller company, an employee could be asked to perform many different tasks and get varied experience.”
Firms also need to provide unique and competitive benefits packages to draw in prospective employees. “We want employees who love their work and who appreciate the benefits that our work can provide to society,” Snape contends.