NextGen: CIRT-ACE Mentor Finals Bode Well

What do an aging Philadelphia trolley maintenance facility, the Coney Island shoreline, and a new Jacksonville FL bridge all have in common?

All were recently the subjects of innovative student design plans presented by high school teams from across the U.S. at the final round of this year’s 10th Anniversary CIRT-ACE Mentor National Design Competition, held April 28 at the Marriott Metro Center in Washington DC.

“The energy, enthusiasm, and passion the nine teams brought to the 10th Anniversary program made it a very special and memorable event,” said CIRT President Mark Casso, Esq.

I agree. As a member of the ACE Mentor Program of America’s national board of directors, I also attended the competition and the atmosphere was inspiring. Jointly sponsored by CIRT and ACE Mentor, the event is now in its 10th year, focused on exposing students across the U.S. to potential careers in architecture, construction, and engineering, and on rewarding the design innovations they develop under the tutelage of their mentors in the profession.

This year, a record 55 national entries were narrowed to those nine finalists, comprised of more than 60 students and 30 mentors, all of whom traveled to Washington to square-off live in the Marriott ballroom. At stake? Top honors in three challenge categories: Historical RevitalizationShoreline Design; and Bridge Design/Redesign & Construction. Winners from each category then went on to compete in one more, final round for the overall title.

More than 150 attendees turned out — including many top executives and CEOs from leading AEC firms — to witness the emergence of a high school generation genuinely excited about design and construction careers. And the teenagers brought their “A” games with them, too. Hailing from California, Texas, Michigan, Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa and more, the competitors presented ideas and concepts with incredibly professional preparation, poise and alacrity.

Building A talent pipeline

If the CIRT-ACE Mentor national competition is a harbinger of things to come, our industry will see an influx of highly energized and incredible talent filling its ranks in the not-too-distant future. While the statistics vary on how well we’re closing the talent gap, just one look at this year’s field of student participants suggests that AEC career choices are gaining momentum at the secondary school level. This comes none-too-soon for an industry facing severe shortages if it fails to develop the new designers, engineers, project leaders, and craft workers it needs to support projected construction demand.

“AEC careers are making more sense for those who have the interest, aptitude, and drive to succeed. And with increasing adoption of design and construction technology, the AEC is quickly losing its stigma as an industry lagging behind”

— The Author

Perhaps we’re beginning to see a natural shift driven by economic opportunity. With the high cost of college education and the difficulty many graduates are having finding well-paying jobs to retire their student debt, AEC careers are making more and more sense for those who have the interest, aptitude and drive to succeed. And, with increasing adoption of design and construction technology, the AEC is quickly losing its stigma as an industry lagging behind in our increasingly digital economy.

AEC is now cool. Whatever the reasons for the new momentum, it seems clear that organizations like CIRT and ACE Mentor are providing a valuable window into our world for many of today’s youth.

And the winners are…

Five judges comprised of respected national industry leaders evaluated the design concepts and presentations for each round of the competition. Teams each selected one member to be their presenter, who was restricted to using only two storyboards as a visual aid. In this high-pressure environment, the presenters were all remarkably poised and prepared, deftly fielding questions on-the-fly from the judges, who challenged them about their designs, the logistics of construction, the problems they hoped to solve for their communities, and the financial viability of the projects throughout its delivery.

While all the entries were exemplary, a winner had to be chosen…

In the end, the title and $5,000 went to ACE of Greater NYC/Team 30 for its RESILIEN-City (Shoreline Design challenge). Second place and $3.000 went to ACE of Eastern PA for The Last Stop (Historical Revitalization challenge); while third place and $2,000 went to ACE Mentor Program of Northeast Florida/Orange Park HS Team for “Unity Bridge” (Bridge Design challenge).

Of course the real winners include all of the high school students in the ACE programs nationwide, their dedicated mentors, and our industry at-large. This year’s competitors who traveled to Washington knew that the real prize was not the money, but the exposure to so many accomplished industry leaders in such a great setting. A particularly gregarious and outgoing group, the 2016 finalists made the most of their time mingling and networking with the CEOs in attendance and passing out their home-made business cards. Asked why he was working the crowd so vigorously, one Florida team member said, “I definitely want a job with one of these firms when I get out of college.”

Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem.

Former publisher of ENR, the author is now a BuiltWorlds contributor. He serves on the ACE Mentor National Board of Directors, and recently finished a term on the board of directors at the New York Building Congress. Today, Bonington is managing director of business transformation consultant Digital Prism Advisors

For a complete list of all the winners, click here. Or visit