The ACE Mentor program is rallying AEC firm support for a new effort to ensure that more industry-underrepresented engineering and construction students in college level programs earn degrees and start industry careers. Academic data show that just 10% earned degrees, on average, with just 50% doing so at some universities in the best-case scenarios.

Begun in January, the ACE Mentor Transformative Partners Task Force seeks to extend industry mentoring, internships and other links to underrepresented college students “who comprise almost 70% of our scholarship recipients,” says Tom Laird, CEO of Gilbane Building Co., one of nine founding firms.

They also include contractors Hensel Phelps, Barton Malow, Haskell and Mortenson, and engineers Stantec, Langan, HNTB and Terracon. Turner Construction and DPR also have joined, with all firms set to work initially with about 65 students.

About 70% of ACE participants are students of color and 40% are women, says Mortenson CEO Dan Johnson. People of color now make up less than 10% of construction sector employees, and women less than 16.5%, he says. “Clearly there’s an opportunity in an industry now desperate for more people," he says. "The easiest way … is to dial up the percentages of people who have been excluded.”

According to Laird, 63% of underrepresented student recipients of ACE Mentor scholarships in Cleveland graduated college programs on time.

“We felt we had connected with students in high school, but there was disconnect once they left,” says Steven Charney, chair of construction law firm Peckar & Abramson and task force co-chair, with Hensel Phelps CEO Mike Choutka.

He points to student struggles with tough courses such as calculus, with varying levels of pre-college preparation, and no support system to help them “stick with it … so they feel defeated and leave.”

The ACE Mentor college link will make use of the group’s 70-chapter US network but “organize that connection in a richer way,” says Charney, noting more intense tutoring and summer prep programs so the goal of graduation and the start of a career does not "seem more and more distant." Mortenson has hired 44 ACE Mentor graduates since 2018, the firm says, with projections for 23 this year.

High school senior Kenzley Adams changed her plan for an interior design major to pursuing a building design and construction BS degree when she starts this fall at Weber State University in Utah, crediting her ACE experience and a Hensel Phelps internship that included a rec center design project and an onsite tour of the firm’s 688,000-sq-ft Salt Lake City hotel that is set to open in October (above).

Adams was impressed with seeing tradeswomen on the project, having access to women and other firm field professionals and having the potential for more work experience.

Gilbane and Suffolk also are among funders of a separate pre-college STEM program in Boston to provide more Black and Latino students access to industry jobs, says Sarah Cherry Rice, executive director of Digital Ready, its nonprofit firm sponsor. She says only 47% of Black and 40% of Latino city public school students attend college after high school.

Joining with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Digital Ready is piloting a Living Learning Lab at one school campus, where 40 students are earning 18+ no-cost college credits in high-demand technical fields. “This will accelerate their pathway to Boston’s innovation economy," Rice says.

Vocational education student and Haiti native Elinald Desroches, 18, graduates from Digital Ready classes in June, aiming to become an architect. “I would not have chosen architecture if this program were not available,” he says.