Fixing the Industry’s Embarrassing “People” Struggle: Takeaways From BuiltWorlds’ 2017 Future Workforce Conference

It is widely known that the architecture, engineering, and construction industries are facing a massive labor shortage. In construction alone, some estimate a shortage of roughly 500,000 workers. If infrastructure spending increases, the industry could require an additional 700,000 workers. At the same time, there are many within the United States who are unemployed or underemployed.

Greg Sizemore, Vice President of EH&S and Workforce Development at Associated Builders and Contractors addressed some of these concerns during his opening talk. Specifically, Sizemore discussed the need for competency-based training and to rethink who we teach and how we teach them. With respect to the latter, he touched on programs at Angola State Prison offering training that have proven to reduce recidivism by 80 percent.

Labor Shortages and Community Development Programs

Owen Washburn, Vice President, Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, and Don Biernacki, Senior Vice President, Construction at Related Midwest, expanded on this topic when discussing ways that Related Midwest is helping minority and women-owned businesses become integrated as suppliers and subcontractors on the large projects that they have underway.

Related Midwest not only helps new companies negotiate contracts and adhere to business norms but develop ways of overcoming transportation challenges that often involve crossing gang boundaries to get to work or education challenges such as the tests required to enter the unions.

Washburn added to the conversation by sharing the motivation behind JPMorgan Chase’s $40 million investment in the South and West Side Chicago neighborhoods. One key goal is to help combat the rapidly polarizing labor market that has seen growth at the high and low ends, but decline in the middle. To do so, they are helping to rationalize employment requirements across similar institutions, create employment routes for ex-offenders, and support a community engagement process.

Hiring the Next Generation: Sourcing and Building Your Talent Pipeline

The environment in which companies compete for a limited number of talented workers has become a tremendous challenge for construction companies that are attempting to keep up with demand Moderator Ro Dziubla, Director of Business Development at Talent Hitch, hosted a panel that discussed the ways in which companies are addressing this challenge so that they don’t face the cost of losing an employee, which some estimate to be 2.5 times the annual salary of said employee.

In particular, the panel discussed the need for progressive talent management and tracking, brand awareness, and deep attention to safety and quality. They also discussed the role that social media and employee networks play in the recruitment process and the need to reflect critically on what went wrong when they lose a valuable employee.

Inclusion and Diversity Hiring Initiatives

Jennifer Suerth, Vice President at Pepper Construction, Aleisha Jaeger, Vice President at the Kerry Group, and Laura Leber, Design Phase Executive at Mortenson Construction, spoke specifically to their respective organizations’ goals to increase diversity through their hiring initiatives.

They discussed the role that hiring software can play in tracking goals as well as the need to create strong mentorship between women and minorities within the company. In offering incentives to increase diversity, the panelists shared that, by some accounts, companies with a racially and gender diverse workforce are 30 percent more productive in large part because of the different approaches and viewpoints that are represented.

With the goals of a more diverse workforce and more equal economic development across the city in mind, Ahmad Hadavi, a Clinical Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University who holds several positions, sat down with Diane Zimmer, Project Executive at Leopardo Companies. The two discussed the critical role that degrees, certificates, and certifications can play at different points in a career path. They suggested that these achievements show employers a lifelong desire to learn and acquire new skills.

Another panel addressed the benefits of returning to education to pursue the completion of a degree. It became clear that as companies reduce their investment in training programs, universities will have to play a larger role in offering courses that can help people advance while also providing a critical venue in which they can be exposed to other disciplines related to the construction and maintenance of the built environment.

Higher education is not the only route

Higher education is not, however, the only route to attaining a viable built worlds career. Key themes that emerged during the day were a need to make the trades more appealing at an earlier age, the need to help young men and women understand that they don’t have to go to college and acquire debt to be successful, and that the trades – both union and non – are becoming increasingly open to women and minorities.

In addition to considering an AEC career path that does not necessarily involve a college degree, it is important to also consider the increasing roles that technology and coding more broadly play in the future of these industries. Currently, there is a demand for an additional 600,000 technology workers. This will rise to 1.2 million by 2020.

A large panel moderated by Kristen Sylva of Autodesk discussed these concerns, and in particular, how to get more women to learn how to code. They also talked of how important it is to understand construction as a technology and to invite young people – women and minorities especially – to go on site visits to offices where they can see what a construction technology career path looks like.

How stronger marketing could change everything

Over the course of the day, it became clear that marketing the image of the field is essential. Many panelists discussed the need to make the field more appealing. Developing strong community ties and creating great mentor programs to help retain those who enter the field is crucial in accomplishing that.

Sarah Stigler, Chairperson of Chicago Women in the Trades, Heidi Ellsworth, National Roofing Partners, and Joshua Davis, Vice President at The Will Group, discussed how to develop and build such programs, and more so, how crucial they are for overcoming systemic sexism and racism. Beyond mentorship, the physical space in which one works – whether the field or the office – is crucial to the image of the field. In both, it is essential to create a safe space that makes use of innovative technology.

Coming Soon: Future Workforce Forum

The presenters at this year’s conference all had something in common: a desire to address these dire industry issues in an effort to meet the growing demand for massive projects throughout the country in the coming years. In order to help continue and foster these types of conversations, BuiltWorlds is launching a Workforce Forum in the coming months and will plan to revisit the concerns raised this year at the next Future Workforce Conference on Nov. 29, 2018.

For those interested in participating in the Forum, please contact Isabel Singer, BuiltWorlds Membership Coordinator, ( for more info.