The Big Easy inspired big ideas from ENR’s 2023 Top 20 Under 40 national winners as the young professionals, gathered at a recent New Orleans event, weighed in on everything from decarbonization to employee burnout.
Meet the Winners
In joining ENR’s seventh annual Top Young Professionals conference earlier this year, the magazine’s 2023 selected group of rising construction professionals didn’t mince words weighing in on how industry should address key challenges, including implementing technology, climate change impacts and workforce development.
In candid conversations on stage and among peers, the Top 20 championed needed solutions. As skilled AEC professionals with successful careers in diverse industry sectors, their distinctive experiences provide them fresh perspectives on hotly debated topics. Even in the setting of the Big Easy for this meeting of the minds, the Top 20 recognized that collaborating outside of the office and jobsite to implement impactful innovation is no easy street.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
AEC professionals often work in bubbles, says Tauhira Ali, executive director of industry innovation for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “We think that we’re the only ones who have problems with prefabrication, or managing your tech stack, or how to communicate even across teams in your company—much less across different trades,” she says.
Communication helps the industry grow, whether that’s reaching out to special interest groups, clients or to needed project team members, says Ali. She is doing the latter as organizer of an upcoming conference for skilled workers in electrical, sheet metal, mechanical and plumbing trades.
“Collaboration is at the core of what we do in our industry,” says Ryan Bauman, transit section manager at HDR Engineering. On a local level, he represents HDR through a collaboration with the University of Minnesota that enables aspiring engineers to learn about design plans side-by-side with HDR staff designers as part of a capstone project. For the Metro E Line project in Minneapolis, which runs through the heart of the University of Minnesota campus, Bauman says that one of the students’ first assignments was to find ways to improve riders’ experience.
Bauman says he’s seen the collaboration “really spark some of their careers, and I think that just helps the industry continue forward.”
ENR’s Top 20 Under 40 professionals underscored the need to have more interdisciplinary collaboration to course correct for industry challenges and move innovative solutions forward faster.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
At WSP, Megan A. McDonald, assistant vice president, transportation planning, leads an advisory group that has become a melting pot of not only company planners but also grant writers, policy strategists and transportation engineers, like herself, she says. Together, they all bring their respective specialties and experiences to the table on freight planning projects and phase one designs.
With the global design and professional services giant’s recent acquisitions, internal knowledge sharing at company lunch and learns has “become even more important” for WSP, says McDonald.
“It’s been this kumbaya moment for all the people coming together and trying to make a better environment for everyone to work together,” says McDonald, also a professional advancement committee member for the American Society of Civil Engineers. She notes that establishing formal knowledge-sharing pathways between managers and mid-level employees can break the cycle of those newly promoted learning their roles on the fly, and can help battle employee burnout.
Adapting to a Changing Climate
Margaret Hopkins, a Richmond-based specialist in climate adaptation and resilience planning design at AKRF Inc., could not attend the Top 20 roundtable, but still provided a host of solutions to challenges facing both public and private sector owners. She is hopeful that New York City’s program that mandates its capital projects to exceed building codes by incorporating climate projections into designs will extend to private owners.
“The hope is that it establishes a best practice that demonstrates the value to private owners that these buildings built to a higher standard are experiencing fewer losses,” she says.
Connecting her coastal clients in New York City, New Orleans and Virginia to share their own best practices with each other has paid off, Hopkins points out. “Instead of hearing it from consultants, they hear directly from someone who has done it,” she notes.
Although the Top 20 group acknowledges that being overworked in construction is not new, a new generational acceptance of burnout as a condition with symptoms that must be treated has pushed company leaders to find real solutions for the issue.
Younger millennials and Gen Z employees entering the workforce want to see how their work contributes to their quality of life, the Top 20 collectively agreed, emphasizing more attention to work-life balance.
BY THE NUMBERS
Highest Level of Education
BS/BA degree: 3
Trade Partners: 3
How Winners Identify
From a legal liability standpoint, burnout has become a “huge topic” on construction jobsites, says Roscoe Green, an attorney who specializes in construction issues as a partner at law firm Adams and Reese. “A lot of our claims are burnout,” he says. “People working long hours, when combined with workforce issues, can creates a litigious environment. Our claims involve simple mistakes on projects from burnout, and just not having the skill level that’s needed.”
With an increasing demand for construction driving the industry to build better and faster, the Top 20 group agrees that there also is more opportunity for innovation—which can be as complex as a new software system, or as simple as a small change in how employers preserve and boost the mental and physical health of their employees.
“Reframe Systems is a five-month-old startup, and startups are notorious when it comes to burnout culture,” says Ankur Podder, head of design for the company. “But we realize that it’s an opportunity for us to set up a better culture.”
When an employee takes a vacation, his or her team gets a sanity check to be sure it can operate without that person. The company also heavily factors in vacation time when it comes to reaching productivity milestones. “We want to grow 10 times in the next year,” Podder says. “We cannot do it if everyone is not at their best mental health and productivity.”
ENR Top 20 winners, including Margaret Hopkins, not pictured, average nearly 14 years of industry experience.
Photos by Jessica Savidge
As a project superintendent for Hensel Phelps, Kabri Lehrman-Schmid has made the mental health of her jobsite crews an inseparable component of site safety with the simple strategy of just asking. In her view, “when we say burnout, we mean people who are either leaving the industry or unable to perform their work because of being overworked and no longer capable to do the job that they are expected to do.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lehrman-Schmid says she has noticed a change for the better in cultural awareness related to talking about mental health. Doors have opened to address it, and as a result, people are more willing to discuss personal struggles that may be impacting their work.
“We are still figuring out the solutions of where we can and can’t promise the owner that we will have it done because we can’t work another 7-day week.”
“The work that we perform on the jobsite is usually cited as the reason why there are mental health challenges in the construction industry,” she says. “Production-driven, they could be isolating from family. We have high-risk work.” At the jobsite level, burnout is addressed in how work is managed, Lehrman-Schmid adds. “The workforce is receptive to it, but we are still figuring out the solutions of where we can and can’t promise the owner that we are going to have [a project] done, because we can’t work another 7-day work week.”
AECOM program director Jaime Miller says the firm has made a shift to focus on wellness, but it’s been a challenge to execute. “People are aware of burnout,” she says. At the design, engineering and project management level, “I think a lot of it is coming from the technology,” says Miller. “We have more tools, every day there is a new system to learn, and all of these ways to stay connected, and that’s great. But it leads to more expectations on productivity.”
She emphasizes that “it creates this expectation that you are always on. That’s necessary sometimes but what I am finding is, there’s never an ebb and flow.”
The 2023 Top 20 were selected from a total of 600 industry nominees judged by regional juries on their professional and leadership skill, community service, work ethic and diversity, among other attributes.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
Recruitment and Retention
At O’Connell Electric, investments made in employee resources such as training, mentorship and continuing education have helped company executives improve workforce development and recruit and train people they need from their own staff. “We’ve kind of given up on trying to find someone who’s already qualified,” says Dave Emmi, vice president of the firm's power group. “We found that we’re making qualified people internally, more and more, as time goes on.”
Additionally, he says the company has engaged its industry association to develop more robust training programs. “You’re taking someone who might have a learner’s permit, based on a four-year degree, and you’re going to shape them into the person you need them to be,” Emmi says. “We’re focusing a lot of our effort there.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Average years in the industry:
Average Years in Current position:
Nominations ENR Received:
TOTAL Regional Winners:
Cypress Environment & Infrastructure engineer and project manager Jennifer Sloan Ziegler says the company has taken a similar stance on workforce development to hire employees that they need now.
“We hire for personality fit, and train for what they need to know,” she says, despite some concerns about the future engineering pipeline and a high attrition rate. “There are a lot of people leaving the industry, especially civil engineering, and a lot of who are graduating with a civil degree and then not even coming into the industry,” Sloan Ziegler says. “So I am very concerned about what the next 5, 10, 20 years is going to look like for civil engineering. You don’t have enough people to do the work that needs to be done.” She is making a job change of her own, although staying in the industry, in a new role as senior environmental project manager at engineering firm Neel-Schaffer, effective May 30.
When a longtime employee leaves, “you lose the institutional knowledge that person had, unless the next generation of employees are developed enough to feel confident in their roles,” says Stephen Parker, a Stantec senior associate. “There is no amount of dollars and cents that can make up for it in terms of client relationships [and] engagement.”
Another problem facing the industry is labor cost inflation, he says, explaining that entry-level labor costs are at times equal to those for more skilled labor, once all costs are factored. Training and onboarding new employees can impact the total cost of replacing departing colleagues. Often it’s twice their salary, he says, making a substantial pay hike or benefit package worth considering to retain talented staff.
“Companies prefer hiring junior engineers, with a few years of experience, because they’re more willing to relocate and they’re asking for lower salary.”
“I’m finding that between fee squeezes on specific project types … inflation and workforce costs, that means [doing] more with less,” Parker says. “You want to make sure people feel valued and have a sense of purpose in their practice,” which can be difficult to achieve at firms when colleagues feel they don’t have voice and choice, he explains.
Steven Venditti, owner and president of Sparc Fire Protection Engineering, finds recruiting into small companies where employees have high visibility and input can also be a challenge. Sparc has six full-time employees. “Folks feel like they’re more stable at significantly larger companies,” he says.
Venditti says he came from a “fairly large” international fire protection firm that was employee owned, but eventually was taken over by a private equity firm. “That was one reason why I started this company, because things changed from the president knowing who I was, and going out to dinner, to [executives] not really knowing who I was. That just wasn’t enjoyable anymore,” he says.
As a senior-level professional, IMEG lead bridge engineer Yanling Leng says career development and the job market for experienced engineers is a “negative situation.” She adds that “a company might value their senior engineers, but they often do not know that.” Leng estimates that up to 90% of companies prefer to hire junior engineers, with a few years of experience, “because they’re more willing to relocate and asking for a lower salary.” Another challenge for senior engineers is that they often “do not know how to use [newer kinds of] software and technology,” she says.
To Sloan Ziegler, senior-level employees not knowing technology speaks to a key need to ensure that workforce development also includes keeping them current on technology and on new ways to work efficiently.
How Top 20 under 40 Winners Were Picked
ENR’s 2023 Top 20 Under 40 were selected from a total of nearly 600 nominations submitted last fall from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Candidates had to be under 40 years old as of Jan. 1, 2023. ENR’s 10 regional editions assembled local juries that each scored and selected up to 20 people.
The top five scoring candidates in each region automatically advanced to the national level, where a new panel of independent industry judges reviewed the total of 50 nominees to choose 20 individuals who represent the pinnacle of leadership skill, community service, work ethic, talent and diversity.
This year’s judges were:
National Director, Operational Excellence
Director of Business Development
Manhattan Construction Co.
Senior Project Manager
FCI Construction Inc.
Senior Associate and Dept. Manager
An AI Idea
Sharing their respective experiences in adopting artificial intelligence into their workflows, the Top 20 group found that some industry sectors are further ahead than others in using AI tools.
In a recent mentorship check-in, a junior staff member asked Bauman about a business case for using AI in civil engineering design: how it could change the way the firm checks plans sets and eliminate hours of spell-checking plan sheets and related tasks.
“I’m a top young engineer, and I had no clue of anything he was talking about,” Bauman says, adding that the staffer worried about how to raise the technology gap to managers. “My response to him was ‘no, this isn’t a bad idea.’”
HDR traffic business class leader Sanjay Paul has seen AI work wonders in the transportation sector by removing human error with automated processes—such as detecting road hazards, adjusting light times at intersections and autonomous vehicle development.
Fear should not stagnate further AI adoption, he strongly believes. “We want to continue doing what we have been doing because it’s comfortable. It’s reliable,” Paul explains. “We believe that AI technology is the future.”
Lowering Carbon Emissions
ENR’s selected rising industry leaders, who average 36.3 years in age and were chosen by an industry jury from among 180 regional winners, are pictured on New Orleans' Crescent Park pedestrian bridge.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
At Arup, planning and design leader Catarina Carvalho says AI is helping some clients address the high rates of shipped product returns, up to 30%, which are creating “more congestion and more emissions” in dense urban areas, even as they seek more pedestrian and green spaces.
She says the 2021 infrastructure investment law is incentivizing clients to reduce carbon emissions and embrace digitization, offering the construction industry a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make an impact. “I do believe our industry will be shaping a better world,” says Carvalho, adding that changes are already underway.
Beyond technology hardware and software, Ali says implementing AI can simply begin with gathering clean and usable data—because companies can’t improve something they’re not measuring. “Innovation doesn’t have to be the latest robot or the latest widget.Maybe it’s just creating a sustainable process,” she says.
Prefabrication is one such process that also reduces environmental impact by reducing waste, says Webcor Senior Vice President Allison McCue. “We need to be more efficient in the way that we build buildings,” she says. “There’s a lot of benefits that come with that prefab efficiency.”
Arup energy and digital leader Rob Best says prefabrication can also be used for “retrofitting for energy efficiency and decarbonization, particularly in the residential space where you have older buildings.” Related to efficient building envelopes, he says “there are good technologies being developed that allow us to …add insulation and quality air sealing” that can minimize costs with less field labor needed.
Conversations centered on decarbonization and climate change have ramped up significantly in the last few years, with direct impact on construction work, says the Top 20 group. “All our jobs are done outside, and if our employees can’t work outside, that’s bad,” says Kimberly Martin, Keller senior engineer for innovation and sustainability.
To correct the industry’s huge emissions footprint, AEC professionals must help owners step up to new levels of response, says Patrick Farnham, Langan senior project manager. “Development wouldn’t happen if it were not for the money,” he says. “But if [firms] say this is something we’re going to care about and be leaders in, that’s what is needed.”
Maria E. Chumbita, engineering vice president at CoreBrace, says owners don’t always realize that building just to code doesn’t account for the carbon footprint of entirely rebuilding after a natural disaster. “We need to think long term about what exactly is the premium to have a building that can be operational—or at least can be successfully repaired—after an event like [an earthquake].”
The industry needs collaborative change, McCue says. “It’s not going to be just contractors, just designers or just owners. We all have to move in the same direction together.”
Meet The Top 20
Photos courtesy of Top 20 Under 40 Winners
Executive Director of Industry Innovation
National Electrical Contractors Association
Driven by a passion to build a bridge to the next generation, Ali is a leader and influencer in many affinity and mentorship groups. Her recruitment efforts span outreach to Girl Scouts, school counselors, STEM programs and others to share the benefits of construction industry careers.
Transit Section Manager
HDR Engineering Inc.
St. Louis Park, Minn.
Bauman regularly conveys the importance of work-life balance to his team members, reminding them that families come first. He demonstrates this by organizing events with coworkers that also include spouses and children, creating camaraderie among staffers and more collaborative and impactful team efforts.
Associate, Americas Energy and Digital Leader
Best volunteers his skills to end homelessness and to educate future industry leaders. He co-founded City Systems, a nonprofit that leverages data and construction techniques to partner with local jurisdictions that seek to create pathways to expand and build new housing solutions.
Associate, Americas East Cities Planning & Design Leader
New York, N.Y.
Living and learning abroad, Carvalho has served as a mentor for woman-owned small businesses in developing countries. She has grown as an industry international specialist and leader by “putting people first, acting with integrity and demonstrating competence,” according to peers at Arup.
Maria E. Chumbita
Vice President, Engineering
West Jordan, Utah
Moving from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the U.S. after graduating college, Chumbita knows the challenge of building a new life in a new country. For more than seven years, she has been intimately involved with Internations, an organization focused on helping expatriates connect with each other and find places in new communities.
Vice President, Power Group
O’Connell Electric Co.
Emmi moved into management responsibilities at his company within a few years of starting his industry career. He now sponsors O’Connell’s power group field safety committee, after co-founding both a corporate level safety committee in 2012 and corporate mentorship program in 2018.
Senior Project Manager
New York, N.Y.
Farnham is committed to using his skills to benefit underserved communities globally. He spent several semesters working on Cornell University’s AguaClara project team, where he designed and built gravity-driven water treatment plants in Honduras. The experience led him to volunteer for projects run by Engineers Without Borders.
Adams and Reese LLP
Green says he was inspired to pursue a professional legal career focused in the construction industry by his father, owner of Construction Support Southeast Inc., and by his grandfather, Judge Joseph W. Hatchett, the first Black man to be appointed to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.
Vice President, Civil Engineering & Environmental Planning
While her project work serves municipalities all along the eastern seaboard, Hopkins also uses her professional expertise to serve her home community. She volunteers as a member of the Richmond Green City Commission, which is committed to supporting and advancing sustainability efforts.
Lehrman-Schmid develops and leads training efforts focused on industry responsibility to overcome workplace biases. She is most proud of being a mentor for a foreman basic training program that seeks to assist field management to understand how leadership responsibilities include instilling a culture of diversity and inclusion.
Lead Bridge Engineer
Sioux Falls, S.D.
In addition to writing and reviewing articles for industry journals, Leng lends her expertise as a judge for the American Concrete Institute Excellence in Concrete Construction Awards, reviewing global concrete design and construction submissions for innovation and execution achievement.
Senior Engineer , Innovation & Sustainability
Beginning when she was an undergraduate, Martin has developed a passion for advancing women and underrepresented communities in construction industry professions and sectors. She has made this evident in her career by championing efforts to confront unconscious bias and boost diversity and inclusion.
Senior Vice President, Project Planning
A mother of two, McCue seeks industry involvement wherever she can make a major impact. She is a mentor for the Purdue University Construction Engineering and Management Women in Construction program, which works to make productive connections between alumnae and students.
Megan A. McDonald
Assistant Vice President, Transportation Planning
McDonald takes pride in continuous learning. She is a professional engineer in the state of Illinois and also LEED-accredited. But her education also includes insights gained from more than 15 years of transportation engineering experience, with a focus on federal and state project permitting requirements.
Committed to breaking gender stereotypes and promoting visibility and leadership potential of women in the industry to future recruits, Miller combines her love of the outdoors and professional skill as a mentor for Explore Austin. The nonprofit empowers youth to reach their full potential through leadership building and outdoor challenges.
Senior Associate and Behavioral Health Planner
Parker has volunteered his experience on such efforts as the District of Columbia Building Industry Association annual Community Improvement Day, the culmination of a nine-month pro-bono program to redesign and redevelop a host of public amenities in the nation’s capital.
Desert Southwest Area Traffic Business Class Leader
Paul’s recent landmark project includes Maricopa Association of Governments’ first funded autonomous vehicle pilot deployment in Peoria, Ariz. He is state membership and sponsorship chair of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and a member of the Intelligent Transportation Society.
Head of Design Integration
Reframe Systems Inc.
Podder’s upbringing on India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands inspired him to enter the construction industry in 2015 to co-establish the first Indian chapter of WikiHouse, which focuses on self-reliant construction technologies to tackle the affordable housing crisis in underserved communities.
Jennifer Sloan Ziegler
Engineer and Project Manager
Cypress Environment & Infrastructure
Ocean Springs, Miss.
A Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science graduate, Ziegler now helps raise money for the high school for the academically gifted, helping underprivileged students attend. She also actively recruits, supports legislative activities, serves as a student mentor and guest lectures there.
Sparc Fire Protection Engineering LLC
Venditti says his involvement with the Long Hill Fire Dept. in Trumbull “brings me the most joy.” He has volunteered there since 1999, as a probationary firefighter and then captain. His fire protection engineering education and experience as a firefighter uniquely enable him to serve the public and educate colleagues.