We must work intentionally to remove barriers and provide opportunities in our industry for people of all backgrounds.
Nationally, 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees are earned by women and 25 percent by people of color. In the Midwest, only 11 percent of civil engineers are women and just 10 percent are people of color. These numbers are not reflective of the communities in which we live and work.
At WSB, we had to take action and do better. Our CEO and co-founder of WSB, Bret Weiss, recognized that there were many programs to encourage individuals to consider STEM degrees, but there was a significant lack of role models. Many positions in our industry are being internally trained by organizations and we are no different. However, our recruiting consisted of word of mouth from our existing staff. That only produces candidates from the same communities that already exist in our company. We needed to find a way to recruit and develop from all communities and to build role models. By reaching all our communities, building trust, and developing role models, we felt we could make an impact.
Building a talented pipeline and a strong workforce is a responsibility that falls on all of us. We must work intentionally to remove barriers and provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because diverse companies are strong companies and are more reflective of the communities we serve. Our traditional approach to recruiting and attracting a diverse candidate pool needed to change.
Bret spent well over a year connecting with people in the AEC industry and listening to and learning from political and non-profit leaders in the Twin Cities metro area. This process allowed him to articulate a vision of what was missing and a role that WSB could play in fostering diversity within our company and the industry as a whole. In mid-2019, my role at WSB expanded to include delivering on this vision and managing the program that arose from it. From these foundations, we launched the Opportunity+ Training Program in early 2020.
A new path to diversifying our industry. Opportunity+ is a program designed to recruit and train people for careers in the civil engineering industry. Our recruitment efforts are targeted toward those who are underrepresented in our industry, specifically women and people of color.
Opportunity+ combines classroom learning and field experience to form the foundation for a career as a civil engineering technician. The curriculum includes personal leadership and work readiness topics that covers skills like communication, conflict resolution, and personal finance – information that is helpful no matter what job a person holds. In addition to understanding the inner workings of the infrastructure that supports our communities, we focus on the technical knowledge and skills needed to be a construction materials technician or survey crew member. We teach the class how to understand and read plans, measure and do calculations, and understand soils and surveying. This foundation sets the class up for a career in our industry.
Filling a need. Similar workforce training programs exist in different industries, often led by non-profit community-based organizations. We recognized a gap within the civil engineering space. We tried to build a program with existing CBOs as well as other engineering firms but were unable to form the partnership needed to move Opportunity+ forward. We decided to build the program at WSB and leverage our relationships with existing CBOs to help us raise awareness and recruit candidates. It has worked well, as our network regularly connects with the job seeking community and introduces their clients to Opportunity+.
At the end of the 120-hour training program, we connect graduates to full-time, benefits earning positions. Our goal is for employment opportunities to exist for each graduate, either at WSB or with our partners. WSB is hiring only a portion of those students but are opening doors for other organizations to broadly reach into our communities as an industry. We want to see change and growth within our own company, but we recognize that this is necessary for the entire AEC industry. Collectively, we can be more innovative and better meet the needs of all residents when our workforce truly reflects our communities.
Sometimes, I forget that the AEC industry, and civil engineering specifically, is notably more male than female. I have a unique situation in which half of the two-dozen people I work most closely with are women. The director of my team and vice president are both women. But then, I get periodic reminders that my daily experience is a luxury. I’ll walk into a meeting or join a Zoom call and am reminded that this industry still is very male and very white. I’ve been in many external meetings in which I’m the only female, or in larger groups, one of a small handful.
Those experiences remind me how important it is to not only have advocates and allies within the industry, but role models. For those of us who are underrepresented in the industry, whether because our gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., it is a meaningful experience to look around the room or at the positions in which we picture ourselves in 10 years and see people who are like us. The same is true, and maybe even more impactful, for students thinking about career paths. It’s easier to aspire to something when you can picture yourself there.
The future of Opportunity+. The first cohort of Opportunity+ graduated in May 2020. One graduate said, “This class has given me confidence and opened my eyes to jobs that I wouldn’t have considered before.” There’s something special about learning brand-new skills as an adult. As kids, we’re learning new things all the time. And hopefully as adults, we’re continually learning new things in our field. But to tackle something completely different and build skills in a whole new area, that can be a significant confidence boost.
Our hope with Opportunity+ is that there is a renewed influx of people entering our industry – people who feel confident in their skills and ability to learn, who are role models and inspire their friends and families, and who better reflect the communities in which they work.
Laura Rescorla is a graduate engineer on WSB’s Water Resources team and is also the project manager of Opportunity+, the firm’s technical career pathway program. Contact her at email@example.com.