Making AEC Attractive to High School Students


Sometime between age six and 16, kids stop thinking dump trucks are cool. The AEC workforce is aging quickly and it’s having trouble attracting millennials and members of Gen Z. BuiltWorlds partnered with ACE Mentor to discuss strategies for rekindling teenagers’ interest in AEC. ACE Mentor is a national organization that pairs high school students with AEC professional who mentor the students through a year-long project. ACE has been incredibly successful at getting students excited about AEC industries.

As Jennifer Suerth, the Vice President of Technical Services at Pepper Construction and Associate Board Member and past mentor at ACE, related, “this year ACE Mentor Chicago was so popular we had to turn away students.”

ACE students come from a variety of backgrounds, but the program primarily aims to recruit Chicago Public School students from low income families. “We want to provide to people in the communities we build in,” Suerth emphasized. “There’s a big focus on preparing the kids for college. Some of them have only imagined college from depictions in movies. We take them on field trips to schools. We give them scholarships and internship experience.”

Jennifer Suerth of Pepper Construction

Because ACE Mentor opens doors for students, the students become incredibly passionate about the AEC industries. “When I first started, I was shocked at the excitement of the students,” Randy Herbstman, an ACE mentor, an Associate Board Member, and an Associate at WSP, shared. “My first year, I gave one of the students a simple project and he came back with a rendered CAD model after a weekend. It’s amazing how students light up when you give them opportunities. ACE is training people from the get-go the way we want to see our employees trained.”

ACE also provides incredible educational and networking opportunities for the mentors. “I got a job out of ACE!” Suerth related. “I was working at Arup and by engaging with other ACE mentors, I found out virtual design and construction was a career path. ACE opened my eyes to something I didn’t even know existed.” Herbstman concurred, stating, “you get to meet a lot of colleagues in your industry who you don’t usually work with. ACE is breaking down silos.”

In the future, ACE hopes to increase its promotion of the trades to high school students. Suerth told the group about a foreman at Pepper whose twin brother is a lawyer. He informed Suerth that he personally thinks he’s happier and more successful than his brother. This discussion inspired Suerth to present the trades to her students, as well as look at opportunities to engage with the trade unions in the future.

In recent years, Aldridge Electric reached out to participate in the ACE mentor program. Historically mostly design and large general contractors participated, but Aldridge’s strong support and participation made a huge impact on the students and the program. “A lot of the current focus of ACE is pushing college, but how can we present trade involvement as a viable option?” Suerth said. “There’s a stigma that pushes students towards college, even if that’s not the right fit for them. Through ACE, we can educate our students on all opportunities in our exciting industry.”

The industry is indebted to ACE Mentor for helping to build the AEC industries’ talent pipeline. To learn more about how you can get involved with ACE in your area, visit