"These are the best and brightest of their generation and they simply aren't interested in our industry ... Clearly, our industry has an image problem."

I recently had the opportunity to do something totally different: judge a scholarship pageant.  We all have our pre-conceived notions about so-called beauty pageants and contestants.  Certainly I did; that is, until I married a “pageant girl” and learned that half of her college was paid for this way (and that she turned down even more scholarship dollars than she accepted!).  My perception was further changed the first time I judged one of these pageants a few years ago. 

In both cases, these were preliminary pageants for the Miss America program which, it turns out, is one of the largest providers of scholarships to young women in the world.  Before you snicker about the program (as I once did), know this: the young women I judged were exceptionally intelligent.  They were well-spoken and extremely talented.

There were three winners crowned at the most recent pageant, and close to $10,000 in scholarships awarded.  One of the winners (with a 4.0 GPA, by the way) was working toward dual bachelor degrees in business management and marketing, with a goal to be a leadership coach and college professor.  Another had already completed her undergraduate degree, and was working toward her Doctorate of Pharmacy.  Her resume of accomplishments and volunteer activities exceeded those of many professionals who have spent decades in their chosen fields.  The third winner was in her senior year of a five-year master’s program for occupational therapy and has already spent much time volunteering to help children with intellectual and development disabilities – her chosen profession.

In a word: Wow.   

Having been through pageant judging two times, I’ve been repeatedly blown away by the poise and drive of these young women.  Some were working to become attorneys and doctors and yes, television anchors and Broadway performers.  One of the past winners of our local program went on to become a neurosurgeon, while another became the media director and spokesperson for the governor of Pennsylvania.

Not a bad track record.

A substantial portion of their scores relate to how they perform during a ten-minute interview with the judges.  In our case, there were five judges asking a seemingly endless barrage of questions about their interests, education, passions, ambitions, mentors, and platforms (the community service work they plan to do if they win). 

Every single contestant was unflappable.  They held their poise, didn’t get thrown by the tough questions, smiled, and engaged the judges.

Could your technical staff do that at a project interview?  Could your project managers handle ten minutes of incessant questions about everything and anything, maintain their composure, and have every questioner at the end of the session think, “Wow, that was impressive!”?  And now consider that these women ranged in age from 18 to 23 and were all still in school.

However, here’s the real rub.  These young ladies are over-achievers.  They have high GPAs.  They have deep resumes of accomplishments and awards.  They are passionate and have a singular focus about what they want to do for their careers and how they want to make the world a better place.  These are the type of future employees that we’d all love to have in our firms.

But guess what?  None of them said “I want to be an architect.”  “I’m working toward a degree in engineering.”  “My future is in construction management.”

These are among the best and brightest of their generation, and they simply aren’t interested in our profession.

Sure, it’s easy to stereotype a “beauty queen” as a game-show prop holder, but that’s simply not the reality. 

How many of today’s “best and brightest” students are we losing to other professions?  Is the A/E/C industry simply not attractive to them?  Or do they see no future in it?

In the past week I’ve seen an article about how only 30% of the 2.2 million construction jobs lost during The Great Recession have returned.  And another, on the Forbes website no less, with this ominous headline: “Architecture Profession Continues to Implode: More Insiders Admit the Profession  is Failing.”

Clearly, our industry has an image problem. 

But why am I addressing this topic on a blog about marketing and business development?  As it turns out, this has everything to do with getting work, much less the survival of our firms.

We can’t market – we can’t sell – what we don’t have.  The talent shortage that has been forecast for years is arriving.  At my firm we’ve already seen it with recruiting electrical engineers and industrial engineers.  Much has been written about the “missing middle” of the A/E/C workforce.  Baby boomers are retiring and there aren’t enough Gen Xers to move into their positions.  Many of the students in A/E/C programs today were foreign-born, and plan to return to their home countries upon graduation.

For years we’ve talked about the technology “haves” and “have-nots” in our industry.  Soon we’ll be talking about the talent “haves” and “have nots,” because if you don’t have the personnel to deliver a project, how can you possibly expect to get work in the future?  How will your inability to meet deadlines cripple your relationships with existing clients?

And in this new era of personal branding, where the brands of key staff members often drive the project opportunities, “Who You Gonna Sell?” 

What do we as an industry need to do for a future Miss America to stand on stage and say, “I’m going to change the world through architecture?”  Or engineering?  Or construction?

How do we get today’s youth passionate about our industry, so that we can have a continual stream of intelligent, confident, and passionate candidates like the young women I recently judged?

When we have that, our industry’s future will be in good hands.  For now, I think the outlook is somewhat terrifying.  What do you think?  Is there too much talent entering our industry, or is a world of hurt just around the corner for a lot of firms who can’t find, hire, and retain the right people?