The construction industry faces a crisis in its ongoing shortage of skilled workers. The sector’s critical workforce challenges, which stem in large part from a worker exodus during the economic downturn a decade ago, threaten AEC firms’ ability to grow and prosper—and even meet the growing demand for building projects.
One initiative working to make a big difference in this area is the ACE Mentor Program of America. Working with industry companies to engender interest in the AEC industry among high school students, the program provides practical experience, mentorship, and financial support to enable students to pursue additional education and enter the AEC workforce.
Representatives of the ACE Mentor program will take part in a panel discussion next month at Oracle Industry Connect exploring the AEC industry’s workforce challenges and successful strategies for surmounting them.
We recently sat down with Diana Eidenshink, president of the ACE Mentor Program of America, to discuss the program’s mission and activities.
What is the mission of the ACE Mentor program, and how did it come about?
DE: Our mission is to enlighten and engage high school students about the integrated construction industry, and then to support their path to get them ultimately into the industry. And, when we say the integrated construction industry, it’s really any part of the industry: engineering, architecture, construction management, and trades.
The program started 22 years ago in New York City. Manhattan College was looking at ways to attract more minority and women students to the engineering school, and a group of engineers got together to mentor kids about engineering. What they found was that a number of the kids weren’t all that interested in engineering but were interested in architecture and construction management. They realized that they really had something here if they expanded it to the entire industry. Probably about three years in, Thornton Tomasetti realized that this was really a great program and expanded it to all the cities where they had an office. And, it just kept expanding from there.
What are the workforce challenges for the industry, and how does ACE Mentor work to address those?
DE: The AEC industry has an interesting challenge in terms of general understanding of all of its varied roles. Most people know what an architect does. They have an idea of what an engineer does. They probably understand what a construction manager’s job is. But, there are many other jobs within the industry that are not as well known—jobs like landscape architect, geotechnical engineer, plus the various trades. The challenge is that many of our schools, many of our cities have really pushed the idea of college, and the trades have been forgotten. In our industry, the biggest gap of workers is in the trades.
Our message to our students is, we’ll support you if you want to be an architect or an engineer and go to college, but we also want to make sure you understand there’s another path: the path of trades through an apprenticeship or trade school. Many of the trade schools and apprenticeship programs work with the students to ultimately get their associate’s degree. And, then they very often can find a job within the industry, where the employer will help financially support them to get bachelor’s degree.
What is the experience like for a participating student?
DE: ACE Mentor is an after-school program. We bring a team of professionals together—very often it looks like what a design team would look like in our industry—and we meet with the students. The program starts with the professionals explaining what the different roles of the construction industry are, such as an architect, engineer, so on. A big part of what we do is exposing them to different options, so that they can make an educated decision on their future path.
And there are hands-on activities. We make sure the teams visit active construction sites. Many of the affiliates do trade days. Some of the affiliates have the students work on OSHA training so they understand the importance of safety.
Every student also works on a project. I was just in Denver, and they are designing a new fire station for the city. At the end of the program, each group hosts end-of-the-year presentations, where these students present to an audience of their classmates, their mentors, their parents and other guests. They actually have to do a formal presentation on their project. So the students are not only learning about our industry, but also developing soft skills like teamwork, presentation skills, managing deadlines, and organization.
Most of our affiliates offer scholarships to the students to help support them for their continued education.
Who are the mentors in the program?
DE: The mentors are really where the program happens, and we are very, very lucky that we have an amazing group of mentors. We have around 3,500 volunteer mentors who come from more than 1,000 big and small firms across the country. We do have a number of large firms that are incredibly supportive, where the top-level management has worked to get their local offices involved. We would love to have every firm in our industry be involved.
In addition, about 5% of our current mentors are alumni. They come back because the program impacted them and they want to give back to new participants. Many of our alumni tell us that they felt they had an incredible advantage over the students in their school because of their experience with ACE.